Should Parents Of Dangerously Obese Children Lose Custody?


A Harvard-based specialist on childhood obesity thinks that super heavy children should be temporarily removed from the custody of their parents to promote the child’s best interests. And maybe he’s not totally wrong.

Dr. David Ludwig co-authored an op-ed in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association that makes the claim, and while some people think that his ideas make sense, as with most matters of state intervention in families, others do not. In fact, there are some who so vehemently oppose this sort of intervention that freaking out and hand-wringing is almost inevitable, but before we shake our bonnets to rile up the bees that have taken residence there, let’s consider the fact that he may not be totally off-base.

First of all, Ludwig isn’t suggesting that all babies with wrist fat be taken away to labor camps until they’ve got tiny, adorable six-packs; he’s saying that in extreme cases it may be more ethical for children to be placed in temporary foster care rather than subjected to gastric bypass surgery. Just as children are occasionally removed from their parents if they’re extremely underweight (known as “failure to thrive”), children whose excessive weight places them in physical danger and who live in an environment that is contributing to dangerous health conditions should be placed in protective custody.

Secondly, Dr. Ludwig’s piece recommends that the child be removed from parental custody for as brief a time as possible, to give the parents time to complete classes and the child time to embark on a healthier diet and lifestyle. This isn’t a fat kid witch hunt; it’s a way to address an increasing medical problem among American children as seen by a physician. While there are 2 million children in the US who qualify as “extremely obese,” cases wherein extremely obese children have required state intervention in order to maintain their health are very infrequent.

Reports NPR,

…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.

Of course, the danger in state intervention in this sort of situation would amount to problematic patriarchal treatment toward the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and subjects obese children- already the recipient of disproportionate amounts of peer pressure and bullying- to foundation-shaking livestyle changes. Additionally, low income families are less likely to be able to afford healthy food or have time to monitor their children’s consumption habits. Taking children away from their parents is unfairly punitive to these parents, who critics claim aren’t ultimately at fault for their children’s weight.

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.

No matter who is to blame for childhood health problems resulting from diet and exercise habits, the problem exists and needs to be addressed both individually and on a cultural level. In the meantime, let’s add Chester Cheetah and Kool Aid’s destructive anthropomorphic glass pitcher to the list of the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted.

Should Parents Lose Custody of Super Obese Kids? [NPR]

Image via Khen Guang Toh/

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