Imagine being in your house and hearing the doorbell ring. You open the door to see a uniformed police officer and representative from the local child protective agency. They announce that you are guilty of child abuse, and they are here to take away your children. What could you have possibly done to warrant this extreme state intervention? Your children are severely overweight.
Impossible! Actually, this scenario is playing out in states across the country in extreme cases of childhood obesity. Consider the unfortunate case of Alexander Draper in South Carolina. State authorities have placed him in foster care and even arrested his mother, Jerri Gray, for criminal neglect. If a pair of Harvard researchers have their way, this may be a more common circumstance.
An article was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that asserted that in extreme cases, the state should intervene in childhood obesity and forcibly remove the children from their home and place them under state care. While I recognize that the article is only suggesting this in extreme cases, this still gives me great cause for concern.
As a parent myself, I can only imagine the thoughts going through the minds of the parents. Is this really happening? When will I see my children again? How can this happen? Is this really about my child’s weight?
As a bariatric surgeon, I often see overweight children and adolescents. Without exception, the parents realize there is a problem, but they seem to be unable to effectively address the problem for some reason. Would that child be better off in state custody? I realize that I see the dependents of “concerned” parents. What about the children of “unconcerned” parents? Yes, junior is massively overweight, but who cares? Would that child be better off in state custody?
The questions that roll through my mind are endless. The variables that need to be analyzed are seemingly infinite. What degree of obesity constitutes child abuse? Is the foster care system a better environment? Is the guarantee of emotional harm to the child when they are taken from the parents worth the possible prevention of physical harm from obesity? Who is making these decisions? Who is guarding against mischief and abuse by the system?
The answer to the problem of childhood obesity is not easy, and I don’t think I have all the solutions to the problem. As it relates to government intervention, I am in wholehearted support of intense education at home and in schools. I would even be in favor of in-home visits by authorities in extreme cases. But the forcible removal of children from their parents needs to be virtually non-existent. I guess I just have an intense distrust of the “system” and especially a system that has the power to separate a parent from a child. I fear that this is a Pandora’s Box that will be difficult to close.