Judge Overrules State’s Seizure of Child from Couple It Deemed Not Smart Enough to Be Parents

Amy Fabbrini and Eric ZieglerA holiday happiness story to share: The Oregon couple who had their two children taken away because the state determined they weren't smart enough to be parents has gotten one of them back.

As I highlighted in July, Oregon's Department of Health Services put Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler's boys—one 4 years old and one now 10 months old—in foster homes, not because the parents were abusing or neglecting their kids, but because the state determined that they would be poor parents due to their hampered cognitive skills.

Fabbrini and Ziegler both have I.Q.s well below average—66 and 72—and their learning struggles were used as justification to take the children away as a preventative measure rather than as a response to actual harm the children had suffered.

Right before Christmas, a judge ruled the couple's limited cognitive ability was not enough to declare them unfit parents for their youngest son, Hunter, who was taken from them right after birth. He ordered the child returned to them.

As I previously observed, when the Department of Health Services argued that the children should be removed, they presented every common parenting mistake, due to the parents' disabilities, as a potential crisis. The state declared as "parenting deficiencies" things like not washing thoroughly after using the bathroom, not applying sunscreen sufficiently to their child, or giving the child chicken nuggets to eat instead of something healthier.

Circuit Judge Bethany Flint took note, when ordering Hunter returned, that these did not appear to be sufficient reasons for the state government to intervene and take somebody's kids away and that "there's no allegation they're not able to meet [Hunter's] basic needs." Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian, who brought this case to light, was there for the latest decision:

"I will affectionately remember this case as the 'chicken nugget case,'" Flint said. "I found it difficult to read that these parents tried this thing and tried that thing and then they are advised that instead of chicken nuggets they should have boiled chicken breast, that giving fried foods is a parenting deficiency. That was hard to read."

At times, the state argued that Fabbrini and Ziegler asked too many questions, suggesting they didn't know how to parent. At other times, the state implied they didn't ask enough questions, trying to show they didn't understand their cognitive limitations.

"They can't win for losing," Flint said. "I think there's a lot of evidence in the record that whenever they do say things they are attacked for them, which could create a culture of silence around the parents as well."

Not for nothing was Reason's most popular story of the year about how our paranoia about potential harms to children are leading to really bad public policies. It's even worse for parents with disabilities, physical or cognitive. In many states it is perfectly legal to use an adult's disabilities as a justification for terminating parental rights, even in absence of abuse or neglect.

The fight isn't over for the couple. Their other son, Christopher, has some developmental problems, and Flint isn't sure Fabbrini and Ziegler understand that the boy needs more than typical parental TLC. The couple's fight to get Christopher back will continue into January.

Still, given a year of outrage-inducing tales of abuse by government officials, it's nice to head into 2018 with at least one piece of good news.