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Should parents lose custody of super obese kids?

Lindsey Tanner, AP Medical Writer
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CHICAGO — Should parents of extremely obese children lose custody for not controlling their kids' weight? A provocative commentary in one of the nation's most distinguished medical journals argues yes, and its authors are joining a quiet chorus of advocates who say the government should be allowed to intervene in extreme cases.

It has happened a few times in the U.S., and the opinion piece in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association says putting children temporarily in foster care is in some cases more ethical than obesity surgery.

Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital Boston, said the point isn't to blame parents, but rather to act in children's best interest and get them help that for whatever reason their parents can't provide.

State intervention "ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible. That may require instruction on parenting," said Ludwig, who wrote the article with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and a researcher at Harvard's School of Public Health.

"Despite the discomfort posed by state intervention, it may sometimes be necessary to protect a child," Murtagh said.

But University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan said he worries that the debate risks putting too much blame on parents. Obese children are victims of advertising, marketing, peer pressure and bullying — things a parent can't control, he said.

"If you're going to change a child's weight, you're going to have to change all of them," Caplan said.

Roughly 2 million U.S. children are extremely obese. Most are not in imminent danger, Ludwig said. But some have obesity-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, breathing difficulties and liver problems that could kill them by age 30. It is these kids for whom state intervention, including education, parent training, and temporary protective custody in the most extreme cases, should be considered, Ludwig said.

While some doctors promote weight-loss surgery for severely obese teens, Ludwig said it hasn't been used for very long in adolescents and can have serious, sometimes life-threatening complications.

"We don't know the long-term safety and effectiveness of these procedures done at an early age," he said.

Ludwig said he starting thinking about the issue after a 90-pound 3-year-old girl came to his obesity clinic several years ago. Her parents had physical disabilities, little money and difficulty controlling her weight. Last year, at age 12, she weighed 400 pounds and had developed diabetes, cholesterol problems, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.

"Out of medical concern, the state placed this girl in foster care, where she simply received three balanced meals a day and a snack or two and moderate physical activity," he said. After a year, she lost 130 pounds. Though she is still obese, her diabetes and apnea disappeared; she remains in foster care, he said.

In a commentary in the medical journal BMJ last year, London pediatrician Dr. Russell Viner and colleagues said obesity was a factor in several child protection cases in Britain. They argued that child protection services should be considered if parents are neglectful or actively reject efforts to control an extremely obese child's weight.

A 2009 opinion article in Pediatrics made similar arguments. Its authors said temporary removal from the home would be warranted "when all reasonable alternative options have been exhausted."

That piece discussed a 440-pound 16-year-old girl who developed breathing problems from excess weight and nearly died at a University of Wisconsin hospital. Doctors discussed whether to report her family for neglect. But they didn't need to, because her medical crisis "was a wake-up call" for her family, and the girl ended up losing about 100 pounds, said co-author Dr. Norman Fost, a medical ethicist at the university's Madison campus.

State intervention in obesity "doesn't necessarily involve new legal requirements," Ludwig said. Health care providers are required to report children who are at immediate risk, and that can be for a variety of reasons, including neglect, abuse and what doctors call "failure to thrive." That's when children are severely underweight.

Jerri Gray, a Greenville, S.C., single mother who lost custody of her 555-pound 14-year-old son two years ago, said authorities don't understand the challenges families may face in trying to control their kids' weight.

"I was always working two jobs so we wouldn't end up living in ghettos," Gray said. She said she often didn't have time to cook, so she would buy her son fast food. She said she asked doctors for help for her son's big appetite but was accused of neglect.

Her sister has custody of the boy, now 16. The sister has the money to help him with a special diet and exercise, and the boy has lost more than 200 pounds, Gray said.

"Even though good has come out of this as far as him losing weight, he told me just last week, `Mommy, I want to be back with you so bad.' They've done damage by pulling us apart," Gray said.

Stormy Bradley, an Atlanta mother whose overweight 14-year-old daughter is participating in a Georgia advocacy group's "Stop Childhood Obesity" campaign, said she sympathizes with families facing legal action because of their kids' weight.

Healthier food often costs more, and trying to monitor kids' weight can be difficult, especially when they reach their teens and shun parental control, Bradley said. But taking youngsters away from their parents "definitely seems too extreme," she said.

Dr. Lainie Ross, a medical ethicist at the University of Chicago, said: "There's a stigma with state intervention. We just have to do it with caution and humility and make sure we really can say that our interventions are going to do more good than harm."

31 Responses
206807 tn?1331939784
First time I've had 100% of everyone to agree with me but I was the first one to vote. Rather we agree with it our not, we already are going to have to cut some programs so why add another that we can't afford.
1530342 tn?1405020090
This is insane!!!!  can't believe it....I agree with u R...lol
Avatar universal
What would the benefit be of taking a child from his/her parents?  I loved the part of that article that said "they did not know the long term affects".... so, go ahead and risk it, eh?  
649848 tn?1534637300
There are things, other than the wrong type of food that can cause children to become obese -- think undiagnosed thyroid issues, insulin resistance, among others - these are things that I have direct experience with.  

There was a child in my daughter's class in school who was grossly obese -- I can't think of the name of her disease, but it turned to be a problem with her brain not being able to realize she was full.... she would eat 4 pot pies  at one sitting and want more...... her grandparents were raising her and it was nothing to do with neglect or not trying on their part.... it was an undiagnosed medical issue.  She was about 16 when finally diagnosed.  

If neglect is truly the issue, then yes, children should be taken away, but all circumstances, including every medical issue known to cause weight gain must be looked at very carefully before that decision is made and even then I'd question because so many lab reports are misinterpreted by doctors (yep, another personal experience).

Before too long, parents will have to obtain a license to have children, just like we have to have license to drive a car or do our work......  The government needs to concentrate on education and medical responsibility before they contemplate taking a child from his/her parents........
Avatar universal
What have we come to to even entertain such a thing. Are we returning to the days of Hitler ya think? Are we being conditioned to think this kind of thing acceptable I wonder.
Avatar universal
Although it did not revolve around the medical community, I endured a totally avoidable, complete abortion of justice earlier this year.  Thanks to a good attorney and a D.A. worth his salt, they saved me from the system over a bogus arrest and worse report taking.  The system I used to be so supportive of almost ran me to the big house unjustly, and because of that I am apprehensive about any government entity trying to throw its weight around.

I'm not going to get into the story here, but there was abuse of power and ignorance like I've never seen.  Pitiful, for lack of a better word.
377493 tn?1356505749
Removing a child from his or her parents rarely has a positive outcome.  If it is blatant neglect and an "I don't give a darn" attitude, then  yes, children should be removed.  I don't think that is the case most of the time though. Morbid obesity is dangerous and should be addressed as any other potentially life threating illness should be.  However, I would far rather see those resources put into educating (this does not come naturally for everyone) and working with parents to assist them and their children in becoming healthy.  It is important...and we really should not take morbid obesity lightly. It would be like not treating a child with any other serious illness.  But I too believe that the majority of parents want to do what's right by their children, so let's help them.  Work with the family.  I fear that we are becoming far to quick to remove children from their families, and I cannot even begin to tell you the trauma that puts a child through.   So no, for the most part I do not believe it is in anyone's best interest to remove these kids from their parents.
973741 tn?1342346373
Dumb idea.  Really dumb.  Perhaps early intervention for families identified at risk here with a home nurse visit to discuss food and resources to purchase healthy food.  

And really, I must say that even parents that do not feed their children well (and that includes a whole lot of skinny kids) have a right to do so.  Just like I have the right to eat a whole cheese cake in the middle of the night if I so desire.  

Regulating every thing including our population's food choices is heading toward the ridiculous.  
1310633 tn?1430227691
I'm going to have to disagree with everyone.

There are people out there that are unfit to raise children, have children, be around children, be remotely connected with children in any way, shape or form.

I come in contact with them ALL THE TIME, and they are truly worthless parents. For whatever reason, they are UNFIT parents.

I'd rather see their children taken away from them, rather than have to deal with the aftermath of their failed parenting when the child is morbidly obese, a serial-killer in the making, a bully, an addict/alcoholic, a criminal, a social misfit (ie: Columbine'esq), etc, etc.

Hell, there are stricter criteria to adopt a puppy from the SPCA than there are for having & raising children.

If a "parent" is identified as unfit, then I say remove the children and place with someone that IS fit.

*Now let's talk about who the judge is going to be, that decides who is a "fit" parent, and who is an "unfit" parent...
Avatar universal
I'm not sure how an obese child proves a parents ability to parent.  The ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise care for and love a child is among the criteria being used to evaluate a parents ability....

So, there have been studies that show that taking children from their parents does often lead to psychological issues.... is that a risk we are willing to take?  Aren't there enough troubled people around without the system taking and producing more?

Now, if mom and dad are crack heads and all the kid gets to eat is Ding Dongs, Bread and butter, lives in complete pig sty, has to drink water from the toilet..... yeah, I think you do what you can for the childs welfare, but it isn't just the fact that the kid is fat....
1530342 tn?1405020090
@ El....Just because a child is Fat/Obese doesn't mean the parents are unfit. I think taking them away would do more harm than good UNLESS it's a case of actual physical/sexual/emotional/verbal abuse, neglect, starvation, etc..I agree with Brice and his logic 100%.
1310633 tn?1430227691
I'll agree with you on that point... just because a child is fat/obese, don't mean that his/her parents are unfit. HOWEVER, the majority of the fat kids out there, were made that way by their parents lack of cooking healthy meals and simply swinging through the fast-food drive-thru on the way home.

Listen, both my parents worked while I was growing up, as did the parents of all my childhood friends. None of us was fat/obese. My Mom & Dad made sure we had home-cooked meals every day. Did that lead to us being healthy and NOT fat? ABSOLUTELY.

Are their some kids that are just fat, and will be fat no matter if they eat healthily or not? Yes, of course. But IN GENERAL (these days anyway), with the number of kids that are obese/fat, you HAVE TO look at the parents and how they're feeding their kids.

Fast-food does not a skinny child make.

That's my only point.

These kids aren't buying the fast-food for themselves. It's their parents, that aren't taking the time to cook healthy, home-made meals.

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