TOP
The State Took These Children Away – Then Used Their Parents’ Low IQ Scores To Keep Them Apart
Photo by Westend61 via Getty Images

The State Took These Children Away – Then Used Their Parents’ Low IQ Scores To Keep Them Apart

Amethyst Gibson brought her son home from St Charles hospital in Bend, Oregon, five days shy of Christmas.

It was 2022 and Gibson, who goes by Abbi, was renting a room from Tina Berlin-Dungan, who owned a one-story house in a nearby town and charged her $400 a month. The two women had equipped the home with everything the baby, Dean, would need: a Pack ’n Play crib and changing station, clothes, bottles, a baby bath, baby gate, and ointments for rashes.

The next night, Berlin-Dungan and her friend Dena Singleton were hanging out on the couch with the baby while Gibson briefly stepped outside to meet her then boyfriend, Singleton’s adopted son. “And we hear pound, pound, pound on the door,” said Singleton. Through the entryway window, Berlin-Dungan saw a caseworker from the Oregon department of human services (DHS) accompanied by several police officers.

“Very quickly, we knew what they were there for,” said Berlin-Dungan.

She opened the door and the caseworker presented a court order to remove Dean from his mother.

Seeing the flashing lights, Gibson rushed home and started to cry. Berlin-Dungan, a retired 911 dispatcher with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, was surprised by what she considered a show of force. They “took him from his breastfeeding mother”, she said.

This wasn’t the first time Gibson, 25, had her children removed. The agency took away her firstborn, Seronica, in 2020 and her son Octavian after his birth in 2021.

Both times, one of the reasons given was the same: her cognitive functioning. Gibson had undergone a psychological exam at the behest of DHS that concluded her IQ was 79, results that typically indicate borderline impairment. According to DHS, she lacked the knowledge and skills to safely parent.

Those two kids had been placed in foster homes and Gibson said they were later adopted by family members. But with Dean, Gibson had taken every precaution to ensure the agency wouldn’t remove him. She started a job as a cashier at a McDonald’s, and secured the room at Berlin-Dungan’s to show that she had support and resources. She wasn’t sure who Dean’s father was, but Singleton took on a grandmotherly role. And while Gibson had struggled with depression and fear since DHS had become involved in her life, she was feeling better. She watched Grey’s Anatomy as a distraction, journaled and went to therapy.

“I was doing so good,” she said. “And then they came back in and took another child.”

***

Gibson is among the 1.6 million parents in the US with cognitive disabilities, a group that faces disproportionate scrutiny from child welfare agencies. About two-thirds of state codes consider intellectual disabilities a factor for termination of parental rights.

Parents with intellectual disabilities are more likely than the general population to have contact with child welfare agencies. A 2020 paper in the Maternal and Child Health Journal looked at records from Washington state and found that of the 567 children born to mothers with intellectual disability diagnoses from 1999 to 2013, over 21% were the subject of a child protective services (CPS) report within one year and over 35% within four years – higher rates than the general population, at 5.5% and 13.3%, respectively.

For decades, researchers have found that child welfare agencies lean on IQ tests to assess the parental capabilities of a person with intellectual disabilities, a deviation from the test’s original and intended use of predicting academic success.

Dr Maurice Feldman, a professor emeritus at Canada’s Brock University and a pioneer in parenting education research, says that the presence of intellectual disabilities “still drives many decisions to remove a child if it’s known the parents are slow learners and have low IQ”.

A 2016 paper co-authored by Feldman looked at 42 termination cases and found that 86% discussed and referenced IQ scores. Another study, published by the psychologists Marc J Ackerman, a founding member of the Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology, and Tracy Pritzl in 2011, surveyed 213 child custody evaluators and found that 65% used intelligence and personality tests, and that only 3.7 hours out of the 46 hours of each evaluation were spent on observing the child and parent.

Feldman is troubled by the use of those tests to appraise parenting fitness. “IQ tests are not parenting measures,” said Feldman, whose groundbreaking work in the 1980s showed that with positive feedback, parents with intellectual disabilities can hone their parenting skills.

“Society focuses on the disability rather than what is being demonstrated.”

—Traci LaLiberte, University of Minnesota

Psychological evaluations, which typically include IQ tests, can be issued at the request of DHS by a judge if a parent isn’t willing to voluntarily participate. Once they are approved, a caseworker contacts a therapist on the parents’ behalf and provides parents’ records. In these cases, DHS pays the therapist.

All of this might happen against a parent’s wishes. “People who have gotten into trouble with CPS are not dying to get a psych eval,” said Dr Eric Morrell, the psychologist who conducted Gibson’s evaluation and typically receives around $1,600.

Sometimes, CPS hears of these cases through anonymous calls or tips to a hotline. Other times, a police officer or hospital staff might alert DHS.

In 2019, the US health department’s civil rights office opened an investigation into DHS to address disability discrimination. Yet cases like Gibson’s and others show that the agency has continued to remove children and assess parental fitness based on intellectual, learning or developmental disabilities. (In response to emailed questions, DHS would not comment on specific cases but said: “Having a disability, development or physical, or any other health need, is never on its own a safety risk to a child. A safety threat must be observable, severe, imminent, out of control and impact a vulnerable child.”)

At the heart of these cases is the complicated question of whether DHS is making determinations based on discrimination against disability, or whether the agency has a reasonable suspicion of a safety threat involving a parent with a disability. Both may be possible.

In Gibson’s situation, the agency removed her daughter, Seronica, after finding feces in the house and the child, then 15 months, alone inside a garage when the temperature outside was about 90F (Gibson denied there was feces in the home but did say a roommate had moved Seronica near the garage; she said Seronica wasn’t in danger).

In addition, sealed internal documents show that the agency relied heavily on her psychological exam to argue that her intellectual capabilities and accompanying mental health diagnoses were further reasons to remove Seronica, and later Octavian and Dean.

“There are people with intellectual disabilities that can parent their kids and they do a great job,” and “there are people with intellectual disabilities that absolutely cannot parent their kids,” said Traci LaLiberte, the executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. “Just like there are parents who don’t have disabilities who can parent and those without who absolutely cannot parent.” Society, she said, focuses “on the disability rather than what is being demonstrated”.

***

In 2013, DHS removed Amy and Eric Ziegler’s first son, and later, their second son, in large part on the basis of the parents’ mild intellectual disabilities and IQ scores of 71 and 66, respectively.

That year, Amy awoke in pain while staying with her now husband, Eric, at his house in Redmond, Oregon. Lying in the dark, she tried not to panic. Then she felt a popping sensation.

Alarmed, she shook Eric awake. “He goes to turn on the light and look down below,” Amy recalled. “And there’s a baby.” She hadn’t known she was pregnant.

The state took these children away – then used their parents’ low IQ scores to keep them apart

Amy and Eric Ziegler, whose sons were taken by DHS. Photo courtesy of Amy and Eric Ziegler

Their son Christopher arrived healthy at 7lb 4oz. At the time, Amy and Eric had been dating for a year after a mutual friend introduced them. Amy lived nearby with her father, Raymond Fabbrini, a retired mill worker. When Raymond found out about Christopher, “he came unglued”, Amy said.

Amy was capable of independent living by any measure: she dressed herself, swept, did laundry and, for a time, worked at Safeway as a courtesy clerk. Yet according to DHS caseworker reports, Raymond accused her of being irresponsible and only able to prepare toast and Pop-Tarts for breakfast and macaroni and cheese for lunch. (Amy disputes this characterization.) Raymond also believed that Amy spent the majority of her time playing computer games and texting. He was already helping care for Amy’s then six-year-old autistic twin sons from her past marriage.

“He didn’t think I was ready for my own child,” Amy said of her father. (Raymond, whom Amy didn’t speak with, passed away several years ago.)

Eric took the baby to live with him and his two roommates. Like Amy, he has a mild intellectual disability, an official diagnosis considered when someone has an IQ around 70, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (The mean standard score among the general population is 100 and a score 30 points below may indicate an intellectual disability, which can range from mild to severe.)

Several days later, a DHS caseworker knocked on Eric’s door and said the office had received a complaint – she wouldn’t say from whom, but a cousin of Eric’s roommate later testified that she had called – alleging that Eric almost rolled over Christopher while the two slept together on the floor and that Eric was, according to the protective custody report filed the day after Christopher was removed, “easily frustrated and often [forgot] to feed his dog”.

“They get judged when it’s really the life of people who are poor, not based on their intellectual disability.”

—Tammy Bachrach, Azusa Pacific University

(In 2004, Eric had been charged with and, later, convicted of contributing to the sexual delinquency of a minor for having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl, who he told officers he thought was 18. He underwent a psychological evaluation at the request of his attorney; the therapist concluded he was not a threat to others.)

Eric signed a protective plan that allowed Christopher to remain in his care so long as someone supervised him “100% of the time”. Later in court, the caseworker, Lore Koch, testified: “He had told me he was on social security disability. He had these cognitive issues. I wanted to explore that more.” But when Koch returned the next day and found Eric alone with the baby, she took Christopher into custody.

According to Amy, Koch then went to her house on the same day and presented her with papers relinquishing her rights to parent. She says she thought the paperwork was a copy of the protective plan that Eric had signed a day before, which she knew about, and she signed the document.

Christopher was soon transferred to live in foster care with a middle-aged couple named Shimry and Jeff Breese. They lived in a two-story house, owned a teacup chihuahua, and later paid for Christopher to attend a private preschool. Amy was not working and on food stamps. Eric had bounced around from job to job and received social security benefits, a fact brought up in court several times. When reached by phone, Shimry declined to comment on specifics but said: “No one wanted to hear what we had to say all those years ago and I think it’s a moot point now. We were put in a specific light then and no one cared about our rights.”

Money is often a focal point in child protection cases. In Oregon, as in other jurisdictions nationwide, state law requires parents to provide a “minimum sufficient level of care”, a threshold that experts say is fairly low and includes ensuring that a child is clothed, fed and in school. Parents don’t need a house, so long as their kids are sheltered and not neglected or abused. (A 2012 National Council on Disability study found that 52% of parents with disabilities receive supplemental security income (SSI) – monthly payments for people with disabilities who have little or no income – and that child welfare agencies often focus on poverty in cases involving parents with intellectual disabilities.)

And yet these child protection cases are often embedded with the societal belief that affluence makes for better parents.

“Things that make life easy are things that tend to cost more,” said Tammy Bachrach, an associate professor of education with an emphasis on disability studies at Azusa Pacific University whose mother and brother were born with intellectual disabilities. “They’re shopping at Goodwill or they’re not able to call up the Uber and have to rely on [public] transportation, which takes a very long time, and then they get judged when it’s really the life of people who are poor, not based on their intellectual disability.”

This was part of the case against Mary Casey, a 45-year-old woman who spent her teenage years in foster care and with extended family in Santa Cruz, California. She moved to New York in her 20s and was unhoused for several years before relocating to Portland, Oregon, in 2015. After a year living in homeless shelters there, she secured a subsidized apartment through Cascadia Behavioral Health, a service that provides affordable housing for people with mental illness and addiction (she’d been diagnosed with a learning disorder, major depressive disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder and autism).

After her newborn daughter, Selma, was removed from the hospital in 2018, Casey’s history of homelessness and reliance on social security disability income was noted throughout her psychological exam. The report found her intellectual functioning within the average range but said her autism decreased her ability to keep Selma safe.

In 2021, a judge granted the reunification of Selma and Casey. I spoke with Casey in May, three months after she’d given birth to a second daughter. She told me how she lived independently, cooking and cleaning for herself and working for DoorDash when she could find a babysitter. But she also seemed to desire support when necessary. During the case with Selma, she said, her lawyer knew of her autism diagnosis but had not referred her to a disability advocate. And she was upset that her caseworker had acted in a laissez-faire manner.

“She was even telling me, ‘I don’t know what we can do, you aren’t eligible for DD services because you have average intelligence,’” she said. “It’s like, OK. And so she was making it sound like it was impossible for me to get the support I needed for Selma to be returned home.”

“We always felt like we were doing something wrong.”

—Amy Ziegler

Casey eventually got in touch with the the Autism Society of Oregon, which she said had set her up with disability services.

“The question that ought to be driving child welfare,” said David McConnell, a disability researcher and professor of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta who has observed parents with disabilities prospering with the help of caregivers and professionals, “is it’s really what support – and it could be very little or a great deal – what support does this parent need and family need and child need in order to thrive and do well?”

***

The first IQ test was conceived in 1904 by Alfred Binet, a psychologist tasked by the French government with creating a method to identify school children who needed extra help. Soon, the US military was relying on IQ tests during the first world war to sort soldiers by skill set.

Then, in the 20th century, the rising popularity of the eugenics movement worldwide led to broad use of the test as a low-intelligence detector. In some places, including Nazi Germany, people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, or those considered “feeble-minded”, were involuntarily sterilized or euthanized in an effort to perfect the gene pool.

“Throughout the early 1900s, eugenicists labored to devise objective methods of measuring and quantifying valued traits, including intelligence, in order to substantiate their hypothesis of Nordic genetic advantage,” writes Ajitha Reddy in a paper titled The Eugenic Origins of IQ Testing: Implications for Post-Atkins Litigation.

In the US, forced sterilization as a widely sanctioned practice continued until as late as the 1970s. By then, more than 70,000 Americans had been sterilized – more than 8,000 of them at the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Virginia.

As Elaine E Castles writes in her book Inventing Intelligence: How America Came to Worship IQ: “IQ testing provided the perfect mechanism for identifying feebleminded individuals in need of segregation and control.”

That line of thinking persists today. Gibson’s psychological exam includes notes from an interview with her adoptive father, who “believes that efforts have been made to talk her into having a tubal ligation”. Gibson told me her adoptive mother had asked her to have the procedure after Seronica was born. Her adoptive mother didn’t return a call for comment.

“Keep in mind,” said Morrell, the psychologist who conducted Gibson’s exam, “that a disabled individual, they don’t get a pass in terms of not having to be competent as parents because this isn’t about whether they have a right to a child. It’s about whether or not they have the competence to at least be minimally competent as parents or the child gets hurt.”

There seems to be a broad consensus among psychologists, researchers and advocates that IQ tests alone shouldn’t be used to measure parental capacity – though as Morrell noted, there is no national standard and people have different opinions about how much stock to place in the results. Dr Amy Friday, the psychologist who conducted Casey’s exam, stated in the evaluation that the WAIS-IV, a standard intelligence test, “is useful to determine if the client has adequate cognitive abilities to benefit from services in which she participates, as well as to adequately parent her children”. Friday did not return calls for comment.

***

Both Amy and Eric Ziegler were asked to take psychological exams, which included IQ tests. The agency considers a psychological exam when there’s lack of progress towards safe parenting, when it’s unclear why a parent continues to exhibit unsafe behavior, if there’s a recommendation from a prior evaluator, or to understand a parent’s learning style.

Though Dr Michelle Whitehead, the psychologist who conducted Amy’s exam, noted she had never observed Amy with her children, she nonetheless concluded that her “low intelligence will make it very difficult to participate in an educational program designed to improve her ability to parent her children”. (Whitehead didn’t return calls for comment.)

In Eric’s case, Dr Christopher Wilson wrote in his report to DHS that it “is unlikely that Mr Ziegler will be able to parent his child in the foreseeable future”, given the “chronicity” of his intellectual and cognitive deficits. (In court, Wilson later testified that he would want to re-evaluate now that Eric had begun living and co-parenting with Amy; he declined to comment for this story.)

One former DHS caseworker who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the central office told me she often found that parents with intellectual disabilities were more open to learning than parents without disabilities (though some parents prefer their independence and reject help, a decision that is oftentimes used as a mark against them during termination trials).

The state took these children away – then used their parents’ low IQ scores to keep them apart

The Zieglers’ case went to trial, which led to their reunion with their sons. Photo courtesy of Amy and Eric

She once terminated the rights of a mother with an intellectual disability because of the mother’s drug use, for allowing drug dealers around, and for not watching her kids when they locked themselves in the bathroom and filled the tub. But, she noted, “a low IQ doesn’t prohibit someone being a good parent”.

Over the next several years, Amy and Eric took parenting classes and had supervised visits with Christopher. They also got involved in a local Presbyterian church, where they judged a chili cook-off; tried to eat healthier and followed a diet from The Daniel Plan Cookbook; watched parenting videos; and began a lesson program developed by DHS that included topics such as Building Personal Power and Spirituality and Family.

Internal reports from caseworkers and other supervisors came back as detailed play-by-plays documenting everyday minutiae, from “feeding the baby waffles before yogurt” to Amy’s struggle to zip up Christopher’s jacket.

“We always felt like we were doing something wrong,” Amy told me.

At the same time, the reports illuminated concerns about cleanliness. Various people, including facilitators from a crisis-intervention non-profit and court-appointed special advocates (Casas), reported clumps of dog hair, dog feces on the pathway outside, cobwebs, stains on the carpet, and pungent smells of dog, dog urine and stale cigarette smoke. Their house was cluttered with empty cans of Rockstar energy drink, magazines and piles of old newspapers from Eric’s days working in the mailroom at The Bulletin, a newspaper in Bend.

Uncleanliness, if to a point where a caseworker deems the environment dangerous to the child, can be grounds to remove kids from parents with and without intellectual disabilities. However, a dirty home is more likely a marker of poverty – not neglect.

“In an upper middle-class neighborhood – suburban neighborhood – there will be some homes that are super messy and nobody cares,” said Christine Gottlieb, the director of the New York University School of Law’s family defense clinic. But “when a caseworker walks into a low-income Black neighborhood or an immigrant neighborhood where people don’t speak English and the home is not in good shape, often because of poverty, they’re assessed very differently”.

***

Throughout the case, Amy and Eric were often held to seemingly unfair standards.

Sherrene Hagenbach-Winters, a DHS volunteer in 2016 who helped supervise Amy and Eric’s visits with Christopher, thought the couple needed some assistance, perhaps, but that the clutter seemed to be a side effect of stress more than anything.

She didn’t think the messiness posed a safety threat that warranted a child’s removal (in its response to the Guardian, DHS said that a cluttered home was not automatically considered neglect; during trial, a caseworker testified that the home was minimally adequate). In fact, when Amy and Eric told her that the state was using their IQ scores to argue unfitness, Hagenbach-Winters testified at their and their lawyer’s request. Afterwards, Hagenbach-Winters received a voicemail from DHS saying they no longer needed her services (DHS would not comment on her termination). She soon became the couple’s advocate.

Hagenbach-Winters saw the Ziegler case all the way to trial, which lasted about two weeks. The state called about 40 witnesses. One of its arguments revolved around Eric feeding his kids chicken nuggets after attending a nutrition class, an argument that did not go over well. “I was like, ‘Wow, there’s going to be a lot of parents losing their children if chicken nuggets are not OK,’” said Tim Knopp, an Oregon state senator whom Hagenbach-Winters contacted. The state’s attorney called Eric’s probation officer to the stand, though the judge noted she didn’t care what the underlying crime was about. At one point, she suggested the attorney ask whether the officer had developmental disability training. “Because it doesn’t sound like it,” she said. As Samantha Swindler, a reporter who covered the trial for the Oregonian, later recalled: “The judge seemed to not be having a lot of it.”

Indeed, Judge Bethany Flint dismissed their two kids from wardship of the state, stating in her decision: “The court is concerned about the heightened standard by which these parents were judged.”

Hagenbach-Winters filed a complaint to the US health department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), alleging discrimination based on Amy and Eric’s intellectual disabilities and the federal agency opened an investigation, leading DHS to sign a two-year voluntary agreement with the OCR to help DHS address “deficiencies” in the agency’s implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The state later passed legislation that said courts could not consider disability alone in the termination of parental rights.

According to emails obtained by a public records request, the OCR conducted interviews with caseworkers, reviewed internal policies and received progress reports from DHS per the agreement.

“In general, from the first round of interviews, it appeared that the caseworkers had not received very much disability nondiscrimination training, if any,” wrote Lesley Morgan, an OCR investigator, to an ADA coordinator at DHS, in 2021, “and are still not very aware of the policies and procedures for providing reasonable modifications to assist parents with disabilities”.

***

The case of Nicolette Houston, a mother with a moderate intellectual disability in Portland and a friend of Mary Casey’s, shows that the agency and court system have continued to focus on disability diagnoses to argue unfitness and terminate rights, regardless of the new legislation.

So many parents with disabilities are afraid to ask for help even if they need it.”

Robyn Powell, University of Oklahoma

Houston’s only daughter, Sophia, who is developmentally delayed, was removed from the hospital in March 2018, following her birth, after staff became concerned that Houston wasn’t able to follow their directions (“Foster care is always the last possible option, and family reunification is always our primary goal,” wrote DHS in its email).

A trial a couple of years later terminated Houston’s parental rights, but the decision was appealed. According to a sealed transcript of the 2022 appellate trial, the assistant attorney general, Scott Harris, argued on behalf of DHS: “Ms Houston has limitations to her capacities. She’s intellectually delayed, she qualifies for developmental disability services.” There was, he said, “a fundamental mismatch between Ms Houston’s capabilities and Sophia’s needs”. (The attorney general’s office did not return emails for comment.)

In arguments mirroring ones in the Ziegler case, Harris also brought up Houston not keeping a job long, becoming “easily agitated”, missing rent payments and having trouble budgeting. Houston – who had been unhoused before securing housing under Section 8, a payment assistance program run by the federal government – and others testified to her resourcefulness at knowing the bus system, but Harris redirected attention to her many missed appointments. His line of questioning reinforced the societal belief that parental fitness hinges on financial security. The appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision to terminate Houston’s rights. She no longer has contact with her daughter.

“They said I wasn’t able to live by myself,” Houston told me, adding that DHS argued that “my IQ is so low” she couldn’t parent. “I think about [Sophia] every day,” she said.

Advocates and researchers often push for services to be offered to parents before their kids are placed in foster care, which doesn’t always happen. In each of these cases in Oregon, DHS referred parents to parenting classes, nutrition courses, therapy or other services only after the removal of children (DHS did not return an email for comment).

A preventive approach, however, has shown to reduce the number of children in foster care. A decade ago in New York, for example, the number of youths in foster care reached nearly 23,000. By 2022, that number had decreased to almost 14,000, according to data by Fostering Media Connections. “That’s because they started offering the services first rather than taking the kids first and asking questions later,” said Gottlieb, the director of the NYU School of Law’s family defense clinic. “But in other states, they often take the children first.”

Robyn Powell, a senior research associate at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, went one step further and suggested parents with intellectual disabilities should have access to community support without the involvement of child welfare at all, an idea she called “preservation instead of tearing apart”. She referenced the Ziegler case – which is well-known among advocacy circles – and the years of parenting classes the couple attended. “So many parents with disabilities are afraid to ask for help even if they need it,” she said.

DHS wrote that it was “committed to reducing the use of foster care when a child’s safety can be managed in their parent or guardian’s home”.

***

On Valentine’s Day last year, a caseworker met with Gibson and her support team. To their surprise, the caseworker said Dean could return to Gibson’s care under 24/7 supervision. “We were like: ‘Oh my God, wow. Look where we’re at,’” said Berlin-Dungan.

She and Singleton switched off supervising Gibson and the baby, which meant that Berlin-Dungan had to rush home after work to relieve Singleton and then help with parenting duties. Sometimes, Berlin-Dungan’s mother also babysat. Over the months, Gibson was granted two hours of unsupervised time, then four.

By August, the case was dismissed. An email to Gibson from a DHS permanency supervisor said: “Ms Gibson had demonstrated her ability to be a safe, consistent and reliable parenting resource for Dean, which was always the shared goal.”

I visited Gibson and Berlin-Dungan on a day last August when wildfire smoke blanketed central Oregon. Berlin-Dungan keeps a tidy front yard and collects various Scottie dog decorations. She fetched Gibson from the back yard, and we sat down at the dining room table, where a lace cloth had been laid for the occasion. The lights were off and the curtains drawn, creating a calm bubble within the apocalyptic atmosphere outside. Dean, nine months old, was asleep down the hall.

Gibson, who says she had also recently been diagnosed with autism, was struggling to secure housing. Berlin-Dungan let Gibson stay even though she fell behind on rent after briefly losing her job at McDonald’s (she’s since started working there again).

The situation had also worn on Berlin-Dungan, who wanted to help but remained in the unexpected role of babysitter and caretaker. She’d been particularly frustrated by DHS not tailoring its communication style to Gibson’s needs, for not understanding that Gibson responds better when someone takes the time to explain the logic or need for whatever is being asked of her.

Dean awoke from his nap as we went through several thick binders where both women kept thousands of DHS records. After Berlin-Dungan changed Dean’s diaper, Gibson placed him in a highchair and started to spoon-feed him baby food as we talked.

I’d become aware that my presence might feel similar to the way DHS comes and observes, taking notes. When I’d previously stopped by Amy and Eric’s home, their third child, a daughter named Danica, asked me to play hide-and-seek. “She’s here to watch,” Amy said to her.

The women remained on alert that DHS could return into their lives. Berlin-Dungan had installed a window cover in the entryway so that DHS couldn’t peek inside the house – not because anything unsafe was happening but as a response to the surveillance they’d endured. And every time Gibson heard a knock or the doorbell ring, she wondered whether a caseworker might be standing on the other side.

“I have that fear in the back of my head constantly,” she said.

***

Then, in December, things took a turn.

Gibson moved out of Berlin-Dungan’s house amid mounting tension. Berlin-Dungan thought Gibson spent too much time on her phone or watching television. They began to fight.

While Gibson waited on housing assistance under Section 8, Dean’s paternal grandparents, Sherrie and Lenny Laughlin, agreed to look after the baby. A paternity test had revealed their son to be Dean’s father. But the Laughlins didn’t want Gibson in the house because, Sherrie said, she was involved in several relationships.

Gibson had hoped to also be living with the Laughlins: this would have provided a house for her and Dean together. Instead, she temporarily left Dean with his grandparents and rented a room from her brother’s high school wrestling teammate.

Soon, Sherrie said they “started noticing bad behaviors” in Gibson, now that she was living without her usual support system. She said she arrived at their house without socks, shoes or a coat on a 30F day and left Dean unattended in a booster seat on the kitchen counter. This led the Laughlins to seek custody in late January. (Abbi didn’t recall either of these incidents and said she doesn’t date multiple people at once.)

Though Gibson is still leaning on the support provided by her advocate Hagenbach-Winters, her attorney and a home visiting program, she’s lost a sense of family and security that might have one day allowed her to return to college or attain other dreams. “Obviously, if she had support she could only go up,” said Hagenbach-Winters.

Gibson thought this period of her life had ended, but she’s once again focused on regaining care of Dean. “I’m very depressed and sad,” she said one day from Hagenbach-Winters’ car as the two drove to the courthouse to file a response to the custody request. “Because I don’t have my kid.”

This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and the IRE Freelance Investigative Fellowship and its project Fire Consultancy.

 

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. She’s written for The New York TimesThe Washington Post MagazineViceThe New Republic, and elsewhere.

Co-published with The Guardian.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. She’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Vice, The New Republic, and elsewhere.

Skip to content