Follow-Up on Child Obesity and Custody

Just about three weeks ago, we wrote an article for this blog about an increasingly common argument used in child custody battles and that’s child obesity. Obesity in America is a well-known problem and health risk, and few argue with that statement. (I maintain a separate blog on the topic of nutrition called The National Fork on which I recently included a post titled Government Over-Emphasizes Exercise about the government’s failed efforts to reduce obesity.) But, does having a “fat kid” now equal neglect by the custodial parent? One family in Ohio found out the hard way that the answer is yes when the County’s child welfare agency got involved.

The child at issue is an 8-year old boy who reportedly weighs 200 pounds. Government guidelines say most boys his age should weigh about 60 pounds. The Cuyahoga County caseworkers said they worked with the mother and child for over a year without seeing any weight loss by the boy and thus felt justified in removing him from his home and placing him in foster care. They said that the child’s weight gain was caused by his environment and that the mother wasn’t following doctor’s orders. They concluded that this was a case of “medical neglect” by the mother and it was in the “best interests of the child” to remove him from the home.

There are not many cases on the books like this one. It’s true that children are removed from their homes for physical abuse, neglect or undernourishment. But is this case equal to those forms of child abuse and neglect? An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July titled Life-Threatening Childhood Obesity and Legal Intervention sparked many thoughtful comments and in response the authors of the article said:

”Our aim was not to propose new law but rather to consider how existing legal framework may apply to cases of life-threatening childhood obesity.”

The caseworkers in Ohio did just that with this family. They used existing law and guidelines to make the case for removal of the child and the Juvenile Courts agreed. “I think we would concede that some intervention is appropriate,” Juvenile Public Defender Sam Amata said. “But what risk became imminent? When did it become an immediate problem?” That’s the question for the appeal that’s scheduled to be heard in the next few weeks. As the child’s mother said:

“They are trying to make it seem like I am unfit, like I don’t love my child. Of course I love him. Of course I want him to lose weight. It’s a lifestyle change, and they are trying to make it seem like I am not embracing that. It is very hard, but I am trying.”

We will follow-up with this story as it develops. We do hope to see the family reunited before the holidays, but this case really isn’t about love for a child. It’s about what’s in the best of the child. Maybe all parents should think about that before they buy junk food and bake cookies and cakes?

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