A few months ago, I wrote about the question of how state child protection authorities should handle the growing problem of severely overweight children.
Since then, there have been a few developments in that area. The state of Ohio has taken a 200-pound third-grader out of his parents’ home, and placed him in foster care. This is one of the first-ever cases of a child being placed into foster care solely because of their weight, and the parents’ inability or unwillingness to control it. State authorities classified the child’s weight as a case of “medical neglect,” and state that they applied the same standards in deciding to place the child in foster care as they would in any other case: they looked at the conduct of the parents, and whether it posed an imminent threat to the child’s health and/or safety.
In this case, a 10-year-old weighing over 200 pounds was deemed to be threatened enough by his weight to warrant placement in foster care. While an action like this is sure to be controversial, and will probably prompt heated debates about the exact role the government should play in protecting children, I think they made the right call in this case.
After all, the long-term health effects of childhood obesity are well-documented. And for such a young child to be so severely overweight, it seems like there’s a good chance that he could be in more immediate danger of illness or injury as a result of his weight.
And if the parents are unwilling or unable to take corrective action (and it’s not as if feeding your child less creates any additional expenses for the parents), the child should be removed, until his weight can be brought down to a healthier level.
Comments on the conspiracy-themed blog “Prison Planet” have a different view. Shockingly, most of them seem to think that this is part of a government scheme to poison our children with anti-psychotic drugs while they’re in foster care. I don’t really have much to say about that claim, but buried in all that paranoia is a legitimate issue: just how much government involvement in the parent-child relationship is appropriate?
Obviously, the answer to this question depends a great deal on individual value judgments. However, just about anyone but the most die-hard anti-government type will concede that, sometimes, it’s necessary for the state to intervene in the parent-child relationship, generally as a last resort, to protect the health and safety of a child.
Remember, young children are generally unable to defend themselves, or make sound decisions for themselves. We trust that parents will always act in the best interests of their children, and make reasonable decisions on their behalf. But, most people also know that parents don’t always take care of their children, sometimes with tragic results.
When parents willfully or negligently place their child in danger of serious medical problems, the state does have an obligation to intervene. Given the growing rates of childhood obesity, and the precedent set by Ohio’s actions in this case, I expect state social services to begin taking action like this more frequently in the future. If so, I hope that they’ll come up with concrete guidelines on exactly when intervention is appropriate in dealing with childhood obesity.
After all, nobody could seriously suggest that every child who’s even slightly overweight should be placed into foster care, or even that the state should intervene on their behalf. While guidelines specifically dealing with how social services will handle childhood obesity may be necessary, the basic standard for intervention should be the same as it would be in any other case of medical neglect: do the parents’ acts or omissions put the child in immediate danger of serious injury or illness?
Whether or not the child’s condition in this particular case warranted his placement in foster care is debatable. However, whatever the results of this action, and the parents’ legal challenge to it, the fact remains that, in the most severe cases of childhood obesity, intervention may be warranted.