In at least five states, parents have had their children taken away by the government and placed into foster care, or they have completely lost custody, because the kids weighed too much. Ditto in Canada and in the United Kingdom. With two-thirds of all adults in the US now overweight and one third so overweight that they qualify as obese, it’s surprising to hear about obese children being removed from their homes because they are too fat. You’ve got to wonder if the welfare authorities and attorneys and judges and foster parents involved all fall into that minority of adults still at healthy weight, or if they themselves hypocritically tip the scales.
You would think the preponderance of obese individuals would usher in a climate of leniency toward those grappling with weight problems, but apparently not. In fact, according to Dr. Matt Capehorn of the U.K.’s National Obesity Forum, “It’s happening more than the public is aware of, but because these cases are usually kept quiet [as a result of child-privacy laws], we have no record.”
The publicized cases have thus far been extreme. In South Carolina, mother Jerri Gray lost custody of her 555-pound 14-year-old son after failing to show up for an appointment with social services. In New York, a 261-pound teenage girl was ordered by the court to follow a prescribed diet and a fitness regimen, although she was allowed to remain at home. And in Scotland, parents just had a newborn temporarily removed because the whole family is fat. The other six children in the family range in age from three to 13 and weigh between 56 and 220 pounds. The three- and four-year-old children already have been placed in foster care. The authorities have warned the parents that all the kids will be taken if their weight doesn’t go down.
All of these cases went to court on the grounds that allowing kids to get fat represents a form of abuse. In fact, courts in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Mexico, and Indiana already have ruled that medical neglect includes morbid obesity. Although criminal charges against the parents have been filed in several cases, no parent yet has served jail time because junior is fat. But an expert from the British National Obesity Board, Tam Fry, says, “My point will be that we regard malnourished children as being abused and so with those children who are so overweight, either consciously or by neglect because their parents allow it, there should be a case for them being removed from their parents to a pediatric ward and put under weight management by doctors.”
And Ron Jones, an Atlanta-based wellness expert, has spearheaded a campaign declaring that child obesity is child abuse. “If you gave your child a drug, you’d be held in the court. But if you kill them with food, that seems to be acceptable,” he says.
The thinking is that kids who remain obese will likely develop weight-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, and so on unless they get out of the environment where they gained excess weight. They need to go somewhere that will enforce dietary restrictions and teach them healthier eating habits. Meanwhile, their parents need to pay the price for allowing their kids to balloon up.
But some experts decry this type of thinking. Grant Varner, who is the attorney for Ms. Gray, the South Carolina mother mentioned above, says, “If she’s found guilty on those criminal charges, you have set a precedent that opens Pandora’s box. Where do you go next?” In other words, just how fat do kids need to get before they get taken away from their parents, and who makes that determination? Twenty states now have laws that allow schools to screen kids for body mass index. Can the law be interpreted so that kids who “fail” their BMI become wards of the state? These are the questions that critics of the recent actions against parents are asking.
Meanwhile, the welfare authorities universally argue that they wouldn’t remove children from their homes just on the basis of weight, that they only act when there’s an imminent medical threat to children. But let’s get real. The fact is that 30 percent of all kids between the ages of 10 and 17 are now overweight or obese. In Mississippi, that rate is 44 percent. The obesity rates keep climbing — not going down. Studies show that one out of four overweight children already shows early signs of type II diabetes and 60% 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 if you’re black or Hispanic, that percentage is half. That means that if we are to believe the authorities, one third of all children will be subject to court ordered removal from their homes — and again, half if they’re black or Hispanic. Perhaps it’s just me, but that seems a bit Orwellian!
And maybe all the parents of all those kids are indeed endangering the health of their children, and they need to be stopped. But clearly, the problem is so out of control that something needs to be done beyond pressing criminal charges against parents. For instance, consider the fact that food companies are allowed to produce and market foods that make kids fat, no holds barred. And while it’s true that cigarette companies can’t bombard kids with ads during cartoon hour trying to get them to crave tobacco, the makers of candy and chips and greasy prepared foods sure can — and do. They also seduce the parents with promises of no-fuss meals and surefire ways to keep the kids happy, and load the shelves with these products.
As obesity expert Dr. Marc Jacobson of The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “There’s clear evidence that the food industry — fast food restaurants, vending machines, sweetened cereals — influences childhood obesity. I can’t say which is relatively greater in influence [parents or the food industry], but [the food industry] certainly is important. The more fast food restaurants in a community, the more likely the kids are to be obese.” If we want to point fingers, the FDA and AMA both endorse high fructose corn syrup, one of the primary culprits in the obesity epidemic, and the US government subsidizes its production and sale. Isn’t it a bit Hansel and Gretelish for the government to subsidize the fattening of our children and then be in charge of removing them from their homes once they get fat?
Meanwhile, the economic realities demand that most parents work during the hours when kids snack and nobody is home to monitor. Parents who don’t have health insurance can’t afford to enroll kids in weight-control programs after the damage is done, and many can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where parks and recreational options abound. And let’s not forget the fact that fast food outlets are concentrated in poor neighborhoods — by design. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital in Boston sums up this side of the argument in Time Magazine, “Parents have a responsibility, but it’s also society’s responsibility — the national government spending billions of dollars on farm subsidies for poor-quality foods, communities placing their priorities on development revenue rather than parks, cutbacks to school nutrition. All this is unfair to the kids.” In short, holding a few parents criminally responsible won’t end the epidemic of fat kids. Sweeping changes are needed in industry and society. Or perhaps as (dare I say it) Hillary Clinton once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.”