Should Severely Obese Children Be Put in Foster Care?

Two Harvard experts' shocking belief that severely obese kids should be taken from their families has sparked serious controversy in the U.S.

Posted: 07/19/2011 12:59 PM EDT
Filed Under obesity

Stormy Bradley, left, and her daughter Maya, 14. Maya is part of an anti-obesity ad campaign in Georgia. A provocative article in a prominent medical journal argues that parents of extremely obese children should lose custody because they can't control their kids' weight in the most extreme cases. Bradley's daughter isn't at risk, but Bradley sympathizes with parents struggling to control their kids' weight. (Photo: AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser)

We all know that childhood obesity is a serious issue in this country—an estimated 2 million children suffer from it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 percent of African-American girls ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 19 percent of African-American boys in the same age group are overweight. In terms of Black teenagers, the numbers are almost the same. However, 22.4 percent of African-American children ages 6 to 17 are obese, which is defined as having a body mass index higher than 30.

 

While First Lady Michelle Obama is calling for children to get moving, Harvard childhood obesity expert David Ludwig is calling for severely obese children to be taken away from their families and put in foster care for parental neglect.

 

Last week, in an opinion piece that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Ludwig, along with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard's School of Public Health, wrote, "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."

 

Clearly, his comments have stirred up anger across the country.

 

ABC News reported that the majority of their experts that they called completely disagreed with Ludwig and Murtagh. They wrote:

 

Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale Prevention Center, said that there was no evidence that the state would do a better job of feeding children than their parents.

 

Dr. David Orentlicher, co-director of Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University of School Law, also disagreed, saying that based on past instances, child protective service agencies might be far too quick to place overweight children in foster care.

 

When Ludwig was notified by ABC, he clarified his statements by saying that the state may not be a better a place for children, but to sit back and do nothing is not good either. He also stated that foster care is for extreme cases when counseling and education to parents just don't seem to be working.

 

"It should only be used as a last resort," he said. "It's also no guarantee of success, but when we have a 400-pound child with life-threatening complications, there may not be any great choices."

 

And when you look at it this way, Ludwig has a point: To sit back and do nothing for these children definitely won't help. Kids are smart and savvy and know what they like to eat and what they don't. But for the most part, the adults, the ones who should be making the "right" decisions for their children's health, are making unhealthy choices that have disastrous outcomes. And without an intervention, sadly that child's life won't get better; it will only get worse and continue a cycle of obesity into the next generation.

 

I look at that 16-pound newborn and want to holler at his mother. But is foster care the answer?

 

With African-American children making up roughly 41 percent of the half a million children who are stuck in the system, how many more do we want to add? And if this does become a policy, what does the policing process look like? What is the BMI cut off of who should get taken away and who shouldn't?  It just seems like a lot of hot air that isn't well thought-out. And in the end, this will just unfairly impact children of color in the same way that the system does now.

 

I think Ludwig may have the best intentions as a means to help obese children, but he is going about it the wrong way. Education and support is best way to deal with the obesity crisis, not separating families.

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