Boston Globe comments on state intervention for morbidly obese children

Headlines like “Should Parents Lose Custody of Super-Obese Kids?’’ and “The War on Bad Parenting” conjure up some pretty strong mental images. Outrage and fear may sell newspapers and attract web traffic, but according to Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss, sensationalist journalism can also detract from the issues at hand.

“Maybe we tune out the headlines and the fear-mongering and find a way to talk about health issues quietly, one on one,” she wrote in an Op-Ed piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe, commenting on the explosive media coverage of a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The controversial piece, written by David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, argues that life-threatening obesity—where a child’s body mass index (BMI) is beyond the 99 percentile and multiple attempts to help the child lose weight have failed—could call for state intervention, and in extreme cases foster care.

The following is an excerpt from Weiss’s editorial, including quotes from an interview she conducted with Ludwig after the JAMA commentary first attracted attention.

“Most people would be horrified if a child were systematically underfed, began to starve, and the state refused to help,’’ Ludwig said. “Why is that fundamentally different from a child who is so overfed that their life is now in danger?’’

It’s a reasonable question, but those have become increasingly hard to ask; you can’t suggest a modest solution to the obesity epidemic without facing a fiery backlash. People howl when Michelle Obama suggests they should eat more vegetables. They cry “nanny state’’ when Mayor Menino bans sugary drinks from vending machines.

And if we can’t agree on small steps, what do we do about these rare, extreme cases when a child’s life is at stake?


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