Should Parents Lose Custody of Obese Kids?

As I was preparing my new syllabus, I came across a case that forced me to think about the extent to which parents should bear responsibility for their children’s obesity. It is well-known that obesity places children at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, and possibly cancer later in life. Sixteen percent of American children and adolescents are obese; another sixteen percent are overweight. The medical profession has warned that, as a result of the rise in childhood obesity, the current generation of American children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

I believe that parents should make efforts to provide their children with healthy foods and regular exercise. However, I question whether parents who do not control their children’s weight problem should lose custody of their children to the state? Are we willing to hold that a parent who does little to address his child’s obesity has neglected his child in the same way as if he had failed to provide him with adequate nourishment or supervision? Courts and child welfare agencies are grappling wth this issue. In a recent case, In re Brittany T., a New York Family Court ordered the removal of a morbidly obese child from her parents’ home based on the parents’ consistent failure to comply with the court’s order that they take her to the gym 2-3 times a week and attend a nutrition and education program, among other things. Although the case was reversed on appeal, the New York Appellate Division did not hold that child obesity can never be grounds for neglect, but rather that, in this particular case, the Department of Social Services had not shown that the parents had willfully violated the terms of the court’s order. In fact, although Brittany had gained 25 pounds in five months, the evidence showed that her parents had taken her to the gym at least once a week, had met with a nutritionist, and had kept a food log for her. Yes, the food log reflected that Brittany ate “lots of chicken nuggets, lots of pop tarts, hot dogs, and pizza,” but the parents had maintained the log, as ordered.

Courts in California, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas have recognized childhood morbid obesity as a legal issue. However, removing an obese child from an otherwise adequate home inaccurately suggests that parents have complete control over their children’s diet and exercise. This is not the case. For example, Brittany’s parents testified that Brittany (who was 12 years old) was known to have snacks after school and to “sneak food” at home. Anyone who has spent any time around older children (or who recalls their own childhood) knows that children do not always do as they are told. A finding of neglect in these cases also fails to consider the extent of schools’ responsibility for the rise in childhood obesity. Many schools have cut their physical education programs from five days a week (when I was in public school) to only once a week in some districts. In addition, schools serve high-caloric meals and provide vending machines stocked with junk food. In fact, the New York Appellate Division found that Brittany’s food consumption at school, rather than her parents’ allowance of inappropriate foods, may have been the cause of her 25 pound weight gain. Many parents serve their children only one meal—dinner. It is unlikely that parents are solely or even primarily responsible for the rise in childhood obesity.

I also worry that a determination that failure to address a child’s obesity may constitute neglect would disproportionately affect minority families who are more likely than whites to have obese children. For example, 14.5% of white adolescent girls are obese, as compared to 20% and 28% of Mexican-American and African-American adolescent girls, respectively. Minority children are already disproportionately represented in the foster care system. Do we really want to place more children in foster care? On the other hand, when a morbidly obese child develops, as Brittany did, “gallstones, excessive fat in her liver . . . which could eventually develop into nonalcoholic cirrhosis of the liver), sleep apnea, intermittent high blood pressure, pain in her knee joints, insulin resistance (indicating an increased risk of developing diabetes)” and the “significant social and psychological impact such morbidity has,” including depression, what is a court to do? I do understand the frustration of Brittany’s doctor who spent a long session explaining to Brittany’s mother the adverse effects of childhood obesity and what foods she should eat, only to see Brittany, minutes later, eating burgers and French fries in front of her mother. However, I am not sure that removal from the home (and placement in foster care) is the solution.

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16 Responses

  1. anon says:

    Not only do parents not have total control over their child’s diet and exercise, diet and exercise do not solely determine weight. Some children have metabolic issues that go undiagnosed and untreated, particularly among poorer families, and some children will just be fat.

    On the flip side, of course, there are children who are fed horrible diets and don’t exercise who do not become obese for whatever reason but who ARE at risk of health complicated as a result of their diet. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that these children be taken away from their parents.

  2. A.W. says:

    This is only a sign of how if you feed the nanny state, it will get bigger and bigger.

    Of course there are some limits on parental freedom. you shouldn’t be able to beat your kids or starve them to death. but outside of those very wide barriers, we shouldn’t be meddling in a person’s homelife. period.

    The fact anyone thinks this is their right sends shivers up my spine.

  3. Frank says:

    Great post–I agree with you, this heavy-handed approach of just taking kids out of the parents’ home will probably only exacerbate the underlying issues behind the morbid obesity.

    If the courts can order the jailing of people who use marijuana and thereby impose tens of thousands of dollars of cost on the state, perhaps they could order (and fund) stays for children like Brittany at a “healthy weight loss camp” like this one:

  4. Madeline says:

    I think that if courts are going to be involved in considering morbid obesity as a form of inadequate guardianship/ neglect, then courts will also have to mandate parents to obtain counseling/ mental health services as a part of the necessary steps to help the child. Treatment for obesity is not just about controlling portions and calories or working out. Morbid obesity is usually tied into emotional issues that trigger the overeating in the first place. Or it results in emotional issues later on due to the stigma and emotional stress that being morbidly obese places on a child. It is also not uncommon for morbid obesity to be a family problem where the parents or other siblings are obese as well. Food and the pattern of overeating and being overweight is a dynamic that goes deeper then just learning to count calories, working out, etc. These strategies can work on the child that is “chubby” and can stand to lose 15 or 20 lbs. That kind of weight is more about learning proper eating and exercise. But excess weight that is considered morbid obesity takes psychological change in both the child’s mind and the parents mind and in their parenting style. Lets face it, many of our parents are so busy and so stressed that parents show love and makeup for the little time they spend with their children, by buying food and “fun treats”.

    I also feel that courts trying to regulate this is going to be a difficult task since most parents with obese children are not abusive or neglectful in the areas of providing shelter, care, food, and love to the child. I also agree that the foster care system is overwhelmed with children that have been removed due to more “immediate” life threatening abuse. The system can not handle more children being removed and especially those not in immediate life threatening danger.

    Furthermore, the courts will have to acknowledge that childhood obesity is a reflection of a societal problem at large in America. We are the most diet and exercise obsessed country in the world, and yet we are also the most obese. Americans go from one extreme of anorexia and bulimia to the other extreme being obesity. Even people that get into great shape, find it very hard to maintain and thus “fall off the wagon” (think of Oprah or participants on the “Biggest Loser Show” that have regained 40 or more lbs.) Our portions are ridiculous in size and yet the most unhealthy foods are the most readily available and the most marketed as being a “value”. Its no wonder that children are obese. They are a mirror image of the adults struggling with the same issues.

  5. “I question whether parents who do not control their children’s weight problem should lose custody of their children to the state” – This is a great dilema as all parents want the best for their kids and the next generation and yet I’m not in favor of the state “saying the last word”.

    No one is perfect and no parent is perfect. We should all strive to be one…

  6. dobe gulia says:

    I also propose to take away custody of all parents whose kids smoke, drink, do drugs, have sex, skip school, and speak impolitely to a judge.

  7. at all costs says:

    “diet and exercise do not solely determine weight”

    This is pro-fat propaganda. I have family members with diagnosed thyroid problems, and they aren’t overweight. That’s because they watch what they eat and they exercise. If you’re fat, it’s because you’re lazy.

  8. Mark says:

    Another issue here is that BMI is an imperfect measure of obesity for an individual. My dad, who’s the same height as me but much finer-boned, couldn’t crack a 25 BMI if he tried. On the other hand, a 25 BMI for me would be very fit. My natural weight is about 20 lbs heavier than his.

  9. sue says:

    You’re kidding, right? Do you know the rates of adult obesity? Where are you going to find enough foster homes for obese kids to live? Get real.

  10. Annette Appell says:

    It might be helpful to include in any discussion of childhood obesity public health questions regarding the unavailability or unaffordability of high quality food to many communities in this country, the absence of safe parks and playgrounds in many communities, and the deterioration of physical education in schools.

  11. Tim says:

    I have family members with diagnosed thyroid problems, and they aren’t overweight.

    This is just more thyroid disease propaganda. Perhaps if they were better people they wouldn’t have to deal with these thyroid problems.

    If you’re fat, it’s because you’re lazy.

    I don’t think your sample size allows you to make any valid assumptions. Sure, some of the issue may be laziness and apathy. But surely not all. Metabolic diseases are well-known, for example, thyroid disorders. Some of these disorders go undiagnosed, unmanaged, or are perhaps not as responsive to the medications to which I’m sure your relatives are familiar.

  12. Ken Arromdee says:

    Mass is conserved. It’s impossible to gain weight without eating something that has the weight in it. Thyroid disease is not subject to similar physical laws.

  13. step-mom says:

    Just a tangent of a question here…. what about parents who have separated or divorced and the custody issue? Should a court take into account unhealthy diet, 80 pounds of extra weight (at age 9) and lack of physical excercise when it comes up in a custody situation? In that situation, who should pay the extra medical costs already being accrued and I’m sure to be compounded over the next 18 years (there is no health insurance)? Custodial parent or equal split even though not equal ability to change the situation? Just curious to see what the opinions are when it’s removal from one parent to the other instead of foster care.

  14. DW says:

    Parents do control what kids eat. YES, they can even control what kids eat at school. In order to buy the school lunch or get something out of the vending machines, a kid needs money, if they don’t have money they can’t order the fattening food. Yes, once in awhile they may bum some from friends, but that would not amount to the enormous amounts of calories one needs to eat in order to gain 25 lbs. Kids cannot buy food, or cook food, or drive to fast food, only parents can.

    Typically there is another option for a child when being removed from their mother, it’s called their FATHER.

    It’s clear in the case of Brittany that her parents were feeding her high caloric, nutrient deficient foods, it wasn’t the schools fault. And because her parents were so lazy that they couldn’t cook a proper meal she will suffer the consequences for the rest of her life. How sad. But it’s always easier to blame it on someone else I guess.

  15. Jessica says:

    I would definitely think whether the parent is feeding the kid healthy food should be taken into account when determining custody. A kid who’s 80 pounds overweight will almost definitely have serious health problems– that is hugely overweight.

    I hate hearing people say “I just can’t control my child. He does whatever he wants”. I completely agree with DW. It’s like those parents on supernanny– “she just keeps screaming until she gets what she wants!” bullsh*t!!! THAT’S YOUR CHILD. YOU ARE THE ADULT. SHE GETS WHAT SHE WANTS IF YOU GIVE IT TO HER!!!

  16. Loida says:

    I understand how great this problem of morbid obesity of children in America is. But it is difficult to say whether or not a judge or a doctor has the right to take a child away from his/her parent.
    I didn’t see any responses from parents who have overweight children. My son is 8 and is morbidly obese. I sure hate to use that word. He may be overweight, but believe me, he has always eaten healthy foods and worked out daily; participating in soccer since he was 4 years old.
    Doctors have blamed me for his weight gain, but they never stopped to see that my other son, who eats more than my 8 year old, is at a normal weight for a ten year old boy.
    I still have not had much answers besides maybe my 8 year old is sneaking food, but if so, he eats apples or carrots as a snack.
    I think people need to get a thorough evaluation of the family and the home before suggesting that parents are neglecting their children when it comes to love or food for that matter!!