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Take Them Away: Has Severe Childhood Obesity Really Come to This?

Posted Jul 19 2011 10:51pm

Photo by Jon Erickson via flickr.

Photo by Jon Erickson via flickr.

As a follow up to my previous post on junk food marketing to children and my earlier post on MyPlate and any other post that I’ve written about children and fast food or junk food I would like to direct your attention to a commentary recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which has caused quite a stir.  In “ State Intervention in Life-Threatening Childhood Obesity ,” Dr. David Ludwig (Director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts) and lawyer Lindsey Murtagh (Research Associate for the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard School of Public Health) confront severe childhood obesity which is “characterized by a body mass index (BMI) at or beyond the 99th percentile” with what appears to be a wild and rash line of thought: remove severely obese children from their homes and place them into foster care.

In their commentary, Dr. Ludwig and Ms. Murtagh write that

[s]tate intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors. Child protective services typically provide intermediate options such as in-home social supports, parenting training, counseling, and financial assistance, that may address underlying problems without resorting to removal. These less burdensome forms of legal intervention may be sufficient and therefore preferable in many cases. In some instances, support services may be insufficient to prevent severe harm, leaving foster care or bariatric surgery as the only alternatives. Although removal of the child from the home can cause families great emotional pain, this option lacks the physical risks of bariatric surgery.

However, the authors also acknowledge that

removal from the home does not guarantee improved physical health, and substantial psychosocial morbidity may ensue. Thus, the decision to pursue this option must be guided by carefully defined criteria… with less intrusive methods used whenever possible.

Reading through the commentary, one senses an exasperated tone more than anything else.  After all, the authors cite a mind-numbing statistic: there are approximately 2 million severely obese children in the United States.  And how should we treat this epidemic?  With bariatric surgery you say?  And so the authors wonder aloud whether “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.”

Let’s set aside the legal arguments for a minute and discuss the heart of the matter: America’s eating habits.  Specifically, America’s childrens’ eating habits.   In a response post on MSNBC , Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized Dr. Ludwig and Ms. Murtagh by focusing on other obesity-causing factors, such as the unhealthy “food culture,” that pervades the United States.  Professor Caplan wrote

I am not letting parents off the hook. But, putting the blame for childhood obesity on the home and then arguing that moving kids out of homes where obesity reigns is the answer is short-sighted and doomed to fail. We need the nation to go on a diet together and the most important places to start are at the grocery store, schools and media.

On Booster Shots , the Los Angeles Times health blog, Chris Woolston wrote that removing children from their homes and placing them into foster care will not fix poor eating habits because

[c]hildhood obesity is complicated. Fast food, sodas, TV, video games many staples of modern life are pushing kids in the wrong direction. While researching a book on this topic a few years ago, I spoke with several moms who were tackling their child’s weight troubles with varying levels of success. One considered putting locks on her cabinets to keep her son from sneaking food in the middle of the night.

Her son was definitely on the large side beyond that, really but it’s not because his mom didn’t care. And even if someone had placed him in a foster home it wouldn’t have solved his problems. As a rule, those places have food in their cupboards, too.

Hear, hear.  Wake up, folks.  We need a food culture revolution with healthier and affordable alternatives.  One which teaches our children to choose healthy foods and to eat in moderation.  Because what else must we do before everyone finally, in the words of Professor Caplan, “[d]emonize[s] the companies that sell and market food that is not nutritious” and “[p]ut[s] exercise back on the menu for all school kids”?  Institute state programs that remove severely obese children from their homes and place them into foster care?  Oh, wait….

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