The nursery in Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler’s home is filled with unread children’s books and unworn baby clothes. A Winnie the Pooh blanket lies untouched inside a crib where a child has never slept.
For nearly four years, the Redmond couple has been fighting to prove to the state of Oregon that they are intellectually capable of raising their children. The Department of Human Services has removed both of their boys, saying the parents are too mentally limited to be good parents.
Fabbrini, 31, and Ziegler, 38, lost custody of their older son, Christopher, shortly after he was born. Five months ago, the state took their second child, newborn Hunter, directly from the hospital. Both are now in foster care.
“I love kids, I was raised around kids, my mom was a preschool teacher for 20-plus years, and so I’ve always been around kids,” Fabbrini said. “That’s my passion. I love to do things with kids, and that’s what I want to do in the future, something that has to do with kids.”
No abuse or neglect has been found, but each parent has a degree of limited cognitive abilities. Rather than build a network of support around them, the state child welfare agency has moved to terminate the couple’s parental rights and make the boys available for adoption.
It’s impossible to know the full story when child welfare officials are unable to comment, but the case has left the couple and their advocates heartbroken.
The case lays bare fundamental questions about what makes a good parent and who, ultimately, gets to decide when someone’s not good enough. And it strikes at the heart of the stark choices child welfare workers face daily: should a child be removed or is there some middle ground?
For now, the divide is clear. Fabbrini’s father lines up against the couple. A state legislator is advocating for them. The parents themselves are struggling against a system that feels impersonal, unyielding and inscrutable.
“They are saying they are intellectually incapable without any guidelines to go by,” said Sherrene Hagenbach, a former volunteer with the state agency who oversaw visits with the couple and Christopher from last June through August.
Hagenbach is a professional mediator and a board member of Healthy Families of the High Desert. After she told state caseworkers she thought the couple was capable of raising Christopher, she recalls, she was told her volunteer services were no longer needed.