Obesity and the custody conundrum

fatkidThere is a story the media find irresistible, revisiting it on a regular basis: The government takes over custody of a morbidly obese child, accusing the parents of neglect and endangerment.

These stories continue to shock us, touching upon a wide range of hot button issues including extremes in physical appearance, parental responsibility, government intrusion into private lives, and the health of this generation of children. Unfortunately, these sensational cases tell us very little about the obesity epidemic and the needs of kids today.

Clearly, parents bear much responsibility for the well being of their children. Research has clearly linked child neglect and abuse with increased risk of obesity. One hundred years ago, a neglected child was likely to be underweight. Today–with junk food everywhere and opportunities for physical activity increasingly difficult to find–obesity has become the final common pathway for many emotional and psychological problems in childhood.

Of course, it’s the government’s responsibility to assume custody if a child is at imminent risk of harm, and in rare situations this may apply to extreme obesity. However, body weight is affected by complex and interacting influences. Occasionally, genetic abnormalities or medical problems can cause massive weight gain from early in life despite a parent’s best efforts, especially if the condition is undiagnosed. More commonly, practices condoned if not promoted by government actively undermine parental ability to protect their children’s health.

Disturbingly, the government has failed to:

  • Regulate junk food marketing to young children, practices that have been decried by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association
  • Adequately support school nutrition programs
  • Fully fund regular physical education classes during school and safe after-school recreation opportunities
  • Mandate full insurance reimbursement for obesity prevention and treatment services, such as those offered in One Step Ahead and the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program

With more attention to these areas that affect the well being of every child every day, we will see many fewer heartbreaking stories about custody.