Are people whose children have become grossly overweight unfit parents? That is one of the questions brought up by the recent removal of an Ohio third grader from his home by authorities. The eight-year-old child weighs in excess of 200 pounds, leading social workers on his case to recommend the removal from his home and placement of the boy in foster care.1
The caseworkers considered the mother's inability to help the boy lose weight as a form of neglect. They felt that she was ignoring instructions from her physician on how to help him shed some pounds. Such extreme obesity raises the child's risk for developing numerous illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, and often they will strike during childhood. He is already being treated for sleep apnea -- which is also associated with obesity -- and must wear an apparatus to bed each night. The mother's attorneys countered that the boy was in no immediate danger. But according to the state, just because there was no physical abuse taking place does not mean the child was not being harmed.
However, government does head down a difficult road when its representatives pull an otherwise safe child from his family. Where do you draw the line? After all, in Ohio alone the state health department estimates that more than 12 percent of the children in third grade are severely obese. That is thousands of children across the state. Why were they not removed from their homes? And if children of all ages are having similar weight problems, this is going to put quite an extraordinary burden on the foster care system, wouldn't you think? Sadly, Ohio isn't even the state with the worst obesity. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2010 showed that 15 states have a greater prevalence of obesity than Ohio does.
While this is the first case of its kind that Ohio state officials recollect for a child being removed from a home solely for weight-related reasons, this type of thing has, in fact, happened several times before in other locations. There have been cases in at least five states in which children were taken away from their parents by the government and placed into foster care because the kids weighed too much. It has taken place in Canada and the United Kingdom as well. The courts that ruled on these cases in various states across America found that medical neglect includes morbid obesity. But if that's your criterion, that means a whole lot of children are prime candidates to be thrown into foster care.
The obesity rates continue to climb in the United States for both children and adults. Studies show that one out of four overweight children already shows early signs of Type 2 diabetes and 60 percent already have one risk factor for heart disease. And according to the CDC, one in three U.S. children born in 2000 will become diabetic -- and for black or Hispanic children, that risk is a stunning 50 percent.
Now, while it's crystal clear that we cannot start removing half of the children in America from their homes for medical neglect, it's equally clear that something does need to be done about this obesity epidemic in our youth. While the shock value of taking custody away from a parent might turn our heads for a little while and make us all think about what we can be doing better for our children, it is still not enough of a wake-up call to the families of all of these obese kids. And then there's the fact that vast numbers of those who are overweight and obese don't know it, so they won't even think the "message" applies to them.
The government might spend its money more wisely by creating better education plans and making sure they hit their target audiences through pediatricians and schools. If parents can be taught better habits so they purchase healthier foods and drinks and avoid all the processed junk and empty calories available, their children will have little choice but to eat more nutritiously -- at least while at home. Regular exercise can be as simple as walking for 30 minutes a day. And chances are, if the child is obese, they are not the only one in the family with weight issues. The entire family would benefit, both by feeling better almost immediately and in the long term with improved health and self-esteem.
1 Dissell, Rachel. "County places obese Cleveland Heights child in foster care." Cleveland.com. 26 November 2011. (Accessed 12 January 2012). <http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2011/11/obese_cleveland_heights_child.html>.