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This couple may have lost custody of their kids because they weren't smart enough
A screenshot from The Oregonian. Oregon's case raises questions about parental rights, child needs, and the limits of state power. - photo by Eric Schulzke
An Oregon couple lost custody of their two young children after the state decided they were not mentally capable of raising the children, the Portland Oregonian reports.

The father of the children, Eric Ziegler, does not work and receives Social Security disability support for mental disability. He is estimated to have an IQ of 66, with 90-110 being average.

The mother, Amy Fabbrini, did not know she was pregnant with the older of the two boys until she was in advanced labor, mistaking her discomfort for a kidney condition. The child was born at home. According to court documents, Fabbrini tested at a 72 IQ.

Yet plenty of people have vouched for the parenting potential of both parents, including a state legislator, though Fabbrini's father has argued against the couple, saying saying Fabbrini "doesn't have the instincts to be a mother." No evidence of abuse or neglect has been found, the Oregonian reported, but the state child welfare agency cited "limited cognitive abilities that interfere with (their) ability to safely parent the child" when they put the children in foster care and subsequently decided to make them available for adoption.

"I honestly don't understand why they can't have their children," Fabbrinni's aunt, Lenora Turner, said. "I go to the grocery store and I see other people with their children and they're standing up in the grocery cart and I think, how come they get to keep their children? How do they decide whose child they're going to take and whose child can stay?"

Barring low IQ parents from having or raising children has a controversial history, reaching back to the eugenics movement early in the 20th century. The most famous expression of this came in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1927 decision approving the forced sterilization of a "feeble minded" woman: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Since that time, the pendulum was swung back, sometimes wavering, but never tipping back to the extreme eugenics position. Today, it's hard to imagine a Supreme Court justice embracing Holmes's position.

In a 2012 NPR interview, Ella Callow, a lawyer who assists disabled parents, said that terminating parental rights based purely on IQ with no evidence of abuse or neglect is not uncommon.

"Those are the most troubling types of cases because the people making the decisions often are not terribly well-versed in parenting with a disability," Callow said. "They don't know, for example, that we have 20 years of research that shows that IQ is not predictive of parenting capacity in and of itself, and yet IQ testing is heavily relied on quite frequently to justify removals."

Writing at the American Bar Association website, Robyn Powell notes that over 70 percent of parents with psychological disabilities lose their children. And, she says, those with intellectual challenges lose their kids over 40 percent of the time.

"The power of the eugenics ideology persists," Powell writes. "Women with disabilities still contend with coercive tactics designed to encourage sterilization or abortion because they are deemed unfit for motherhood. Equally alarming, a growing trend is emerging toward sterilizing people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities."

By 2015, University of Sidney (Australia) Health Sciences Professor Gwynnyth Llwellyn would write in a survey of recent research that much of the discourse had largely moved on from whether intellectually challenged parents could raise children, to studying the context within which they do so.

As things stand now, both of Ziegler and Fabbrini's children remain in foster care, and there will be no change in that status likely unless Oregon changes its law.

In 2013, disability advocates supported a bill that would have protected parental rights when there is no clear evidence of abuse or neglect, but the bill failed. Oregon state Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) told the Oregonian that he would support new legislation.