Should Parents of Obese Children Lose Custody?

Before you give your kids another Snickers bar, decide if you’re cool with them getting thrown into foster care.

Well… not exactly. But in an opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, obesity expert Dr. David Ludwig and Harvard lawyer Lindsey Murtagh have suggested that parents of significantly obese children should lose custody for being criminally negligent for their children’s health.

Despite the large controversy taking place about Ludwig and Martagh’s suggestions, it seems clear that they are not talking about ripping every fat kid from their parent’s dinner table and tossing them into the already overburdened foster care system. They’re suggesting that states change policy regarding child abuse to include morbid obesity as a form of medical neglect.

“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors,” Ludwig said in the editorial, which he co-wrote with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

“In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable, from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” the authors wrote.

Ludwig suggests that state intervention would be a last resort and used only in extreme cases. Currently, there are 12.5 million, about 17% of teens, who are considered obese. Some states, like Texas, Indiana, New York, and New Mexico, have already moved to include morbid child obesity as a form of abuse.

One has to wonder – would removing children from their parents and placing them into foster care really be effective? Wouldn’t sending a health expert to the house or requiring that the parent and the child to attend health eating courses be cheaper on the taxpayer? And what about the consequences of tearing families apart? As a fierce personal liberty advocate, even the word “require” does not sit well with me – suggest seems more appropriate. Then again, if parents refuse to take steps toward healthier eating and exercise at the expense of a child’s wellbeing, maybe the state should step in.

What sort of food will foster care programs serve to these kids? I mean, I went to public schools and our lunches were provided by companies like Sodexho and Aramark: heavily processed foods, low quality meats, pizza, cheeseburgers, french fries, tater tots, strawberry (sugar) milk – just stuff I couldn’t imaging eating now (maybe that’s because I moved to San Francisco and we’re so smug we smell our own farts). I’m not convinced that sending kids to government run foster care centers will provide them with the nutritional needs to become healthy. In this video, this point is actually proven when one of Ludwig’s own patients, a 3 year old child who weighed in at 90 lbs, was taken from her parents and placed into foster care for months where, you guessed it, she didn’t lose any weight.

In South Carolina, a 14 year old boy who weighs in at 555 lbs has been taken from his mother’s custody and placed into foster care. The mom says she tried to follow the nutritional guidelines set for her son by the state Department of Social Services, but that he got food on his own and from friends. Her lawyer says it’s unfair to take away her child because she wasn’t “force-feeding him” and she doesn’t have the financial means to buy healthier foods.

We are at in a unique and strange place in our country’s history and economy where the cheapest foods are those that are high calorie, resulting in some of our poorest citizens actually being our fattest.

What do you think HeadCount? Is this a smart way to reduce child obesity? Or is this a nanny state approach to a complex problem that really requires education and cultural change?

Tell your friends!