Solving the Childhood Obesity Crisis: Taking Custody from the Parents

In attempts to come to terms with the obesity epidemic in the Western world, a new solution has been suggested. Last month, two Harvard-affiliated doctors published an opinion column in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which stated that morbidly obese kids should be considered endangered and removed from their homes. Is unhealthy living a form of abuse? What can the government do to intervene?

According to the National Heart Association, almost one in three American children is now overweight or obese. Taking into consideration the fact that an increasing number of young people are developing Type 2 diabetes and the even more alarming reality of children dying of obesity as early as age three it is clear that something has been done. What is also clear is the fact that leaving it up to parents is not working in many homes. David Ludwig and Lindsey Murtagh, the authors of the op-ed in the JAMA, say that they are not Draconian moralists by being prepared to shame bad parents and break up homes. They propose taking unhealthy children away from their homes on a temporary basis, long enough to help the child lose weight and learn about healthy eating and nutrition. They are of the mind that government intervention could support not just the child but the whole family, and that the intention would be to reunite the child with their family as soon as possible.

Whether you agree with it or not, children have already started being taken from their homes for being too overweight. Ludwig says that the idea for state intervention in obesity cases came to him when he met a 90-pound 3-year-old whose parents were poor, disabled, and did not have the means to control her weight. By the age of 12, she weighed 400 pounds and had developed diabetes. At this point the Massachusetts Department of Protective and Family Services took action and removed her from her home. After a year of government care, she had lost 130 pounds and no longer suffered from diabetes. Ludwig reports that the girl is still categorically obese, but remains in government care and improving every day.

As an ideal, government intervention might not be a bad thing. However, while the government can take away as many children as they want, good behaviour is not something they can legislate. It definitely couldn’t in the case of Terrell Hunter (also known as “Heavy T”), a morbidly obese teenager from Washington D.C., whose weight problem got so bad at such an early age that it caused the bones in his knees to misalign. Hunter’s mother was charged with neglect by the state and he was placed in an anti-obesity program. He successfully lost 137 pounds and received surgery on his legs. As he improved, Hunter’s mother gradually regained custody of her son. When he did get home following the completion of his treatment, he put on all the weight and died earlier this year from obesity. Hunter had not yet turned 20.

There have been multiple other cases in recent years in which a child’s obesity resulted in loss of custody. Dr. Matt Capehorn of the UK’s National Obesity Forum has said:

“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.”

In Britain, the issue of whether parents should lose custody of their obese children took the spotlight two years ago with a British television documentary about Connor McCreaddie, an 8-year-old who weighed more than 200 pounds and was at risk of being taken from his mother by the authorities. By weaning him off processed foods she retained custody.

In Scotland, a couple lost custody of two of their six children on the basis of what was, their lawyer claims, a failure to reduce their children’s weight following warnings from Scottish social services. The couple lost their appeal for unknown reasons but representatives of Dundee City say they would never remove children “just because of a weight issue.” Not so in South Carolina, where Jerri Gray lost custody of her 14-year-old son in May. He weighed 555 lbs. The boy is currently living with his aunt while his mother faces criminal child-neglect charges.

Last year, newspapers reported the story of a Chinese boy called Lei Lei who weighed 43 pounds at the age of 10 months. Given that, according to China University of Hong Kong, most Chinese boys weigh around 18 pounds at that age, Lei Lei’s weight raised alarm. His mother told reporters that he has a “ravenous” appetite. Experts were quick to point out the risks of such an appetite. Keith Ayoob, associate clinical professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says that there are medical conditions that can cause children to become extremely overweight, like Prader-Willi Syndrome or hormonal imbalances, but that some children – even babies – often become overweight their parents feed them too much.

Removing children from their parents remains a last resort, but obesity experts are increasingly debating whether doing so can increase a child’s chances for a healthier (and longer) life. The chairman of Britain’s Child Growth Foundation, Tam Fry, has been suggesting that obesity experts need to start seeing over-nutrition as a form of child abuse:

“Children are vulnerable. If they’re given food and told to finish what’s on the plate, they’ll eat it, and without exercise get bigger and bigger.”

An opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association says putting children temporarily in foster care is in some cases more ethical than obesity surgery.

The difficulty lies in the fact that parental responsibility in weight gain is hard to assess. Dr Dana Rofey of the University of Pittsburgh says:

“It’s unfair to blame solely the parents, when there’s a myriad of other factors influencing a child’s weight.”

She says that other contributing factors include genetic predisposition, socioeconomic status and environmental factors, such as whether children have access to parks and playgrounds. She also accounts for the children who sneak food behind their parents’ backs. Add to that the issue of obese parents who can be in denial of their children’s weight problems. When parents refuse to address the issue, Fry suggests that the children would be better in the care of professionals – with the condition that parents may visit – and that steps are taken to alter the family’s diet so the child may eventually return to a healthier home. However, when Fry introduced the idea at the U.K.’s National Obesity Forum conference, she found that only a third of the delegates were in favour. She sees it in positive terms:

“I knew that I was running against the tide, but I’m seeing others slowly but surely coming around.”

Attitudes are changing. Exercise physiologist and author of Trim Kids, Dr. Melinda Sothern has explained that, during 20 years of experience with obese children, she has seen only about a dozen removed from their homes; but in recent years, she testifies to a change in attitude:

“I’ve seen less and less willingness on the professional side to understand how hard it is on the parents’ side, especially from younger professionals… [Child protection] laws have changed, so a lot of times they worry that if they don’t report parents, they’ll get in trouble.”

Dr. David Ludwig, who directs the Optimal Weight for Life program at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, says there’s plenty of blame to go around:

“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.”

To what degree should parents be held accountable for a child’s health? Common sense tells us that overfeeding, overindulging, ignoring nutrition and health, and an inability to instil self-control or healthy habits are all signs of poor parenting, but can it be categorised as abuse? If so, at what point does poor parenting become abusive? Who makes the decision? Schools are already using hidden cameras to scan children’s lunchboxes for unhealthy food; maybe they can track and monitor children’s weight and BMI while they are at it. How far is the state willing to intrude in family life? Looks like a case of desperate times and desperate measures.

RELATED ARTICLES,8599,1930772,00.html


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Health, Medicine, People, Politics, Law

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

Subscribe to Intentious

Be notified by email whenever new pieces are posted by the blogging team tackling controversial current events or issues.

9 Comments on “Solving the Childhood Obesity Crisis: Taking Custody from the Parents”

  1. August 22, 2011 at 4:19 am #

    Really interesting read I agree that Childhood obesity should be seen as a form of abuse and in extreme cases removing a child from its home maybe what is best for the child however removing a child from its family can have an effect on the child development. Obesity is a developing problem and unless more money is spent educating people of what is healthy food then there will always be a problem.

  2. August 22, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    It’s a difficult one: as you say, removing a child from its family can have a negative impact; but if it saves the child from a fate like that of “Heavy T” maybe it is worth it? Getting to live beyond twenty years of age, albeit having to make an adjustment away from the family temporarily, seems like a good deal to me. So long as the child is not totally isolated from its family…

    Governments have increased initiatives to promote healthy eating and exercise as part of daily lifestyles; however, I don’t see much implementation of them.

  3. August 22, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    The quality of parenting in Western countries, at least the English speaking ones, is coming up more frequently. Especially since the London riots appear to have had little to do with race or unemployment. I’ve heard a couple of people blame bad parenting for it and I’m tending in that direction myself, my only caveat being that it bad parenting can cover the cause of just about every social ill!

    I found this recent Intelligence Squared debate on the topic of parenting quite thought-provoking:

  4. August 23, 2011 at 4:05 am #

    Interesting link.

    I have always been persuaded that people should have to pass a test before they are allowed to be parents… I am half facetious in this.

  5. alpha45
    August 31, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Interesting post, thank you guys.

  6. April 11, 2013 at 3:04 am #

    r u certain that is certainly true?


  1. Solving the Childhood Obesity Crisis: Taking Custody from the Parents | Child Obesity Tracker - October 30, 2011

    […] SOURCE:… Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in News and tagged childhood obesity, child obesity, obese, obesity, overweight, morbidly obese, morbidly obese children, morbidly obese teens, fat, fatty, fatso, chubby, parent custody, gordo, obeso, obesidad infantil, Gojazna deca, Gojaznost, teen, teenager, Teen obesity, obese teens. Bookmark the permalink. ← Childhood Obesity Statistics in America Getting Worse The Problem Of Obesity In Teenagers → […]

  2. Solving the Childhood Obesity Crisis: Taking Custody from the Parents | Child Obesity Tracker - November 3, 2011

    […] SOURCE:… Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in News and tagged child obesity, childhood obesity, chubby, fat, fat camp, fatso, fatty, Gojazna deca, Gojaznost, gordo, morbidly obese, morbidly obese children, morbidly obese teens, obese, obese teens, obesidad infantil, obesity, obeso, overweight, parent custody, porker, teen, Teen obesity, teenager, Weight Loss Camp. Bookmark the permalink. ← Teen Obesity – cause and effect […]

  3. Solving the Childhood Obesity Crisis: Taking Custody from the Parents | Child Obesity Tracker - December 1, 2011

    […] SOURCE:… Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in News and tagged childhood obesity, child obesity, obese, obesity, overweight, morbidly obese, morbidly obese children, morbidly obese teens, fat, fatty, fatso, chubby, porker, parent custody, gordo, obeso, obesidad infantil, Gojazna deca, Gojaznost, teen, teenager, Teen obesity, Weight Loss Camp, fat camp, obese teens. Bookmark the permalink. ← Ohio County Sends 8-year-old to Foster Care; Mother Blamed for Obesity […]

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: