Is raising a fat kid a crime? A county in Ohio says it is. Luckily, I grew up (and out) in California, but how much governmental “help” in parenting our kids is too much?
I was a fat kid.
Often described using euphemisms such as “chubby,” “chunky,” “husky,” and “plump,” but smart enough to know I was bigger than the other kids, I resorted to silly, funny, jokey behavior (specializing in potty humor), which fit in beautifully with the “jolly” stereotype.
But I was fat for a reason. My home life was stressful and unstable, and I ate for comfort. My father was handicapped and our only income was monthly social security checks. I was acutely aware that other families didn’t move on such short notice, leaving no forwarding address. I couldn’t ignore the fact that my classmates had new shoes and clothes, while my brother and I got our kicks from Goodwill and our mom sewed a good portion of our wardrobes. Mom and Dad fought about how much money we didn’t have and where we would get more. I couldn’t help but overhear.
So I ate, and ate. and ate.
In some strange way, I felt like I was keeping the family afloat. You see, as long as we had food, we weren’t too far gone. So, I kept consuming, food kept appearing in the house, and I felt better about a bad situation. In my worried, pre-pubescent mind, it made perfect sense.
This past weekend, I read a story about a 200 pound eight-year-old boy in Ohio who has been taken away from his mother and put into foster care because of his weight problem.
“Cuyahoga County removed the boy because case workers considered this mother’s inability to get her son’s weight down a form of medical neglect,” said Mary Louise Madigan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Family Services.
The article explains that the boy’s mother took him to the hospital for breathing problems, back in 2010. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea and given a machine to help him breathe while he slept. He was placed under “protective supervision” and social workers were assigned to monitor his health. The boy’s mother enrolled him in an education program–through the hospital–designed to encourage healthy eating habits. The boy lost weight. Then other children and family members (mom, dad, and several family members are overweight) began sneaking the boy food and he gained the weight back.
That’s when the county stepped in.
It seems the boy’s new foster mother is having trouble keeping up with all of his appointments, and there’s talk of moving him to yet another foster home. Meanwhile, his mother has been granted only two hours of visitation per week.
With childhood obesity on the rise, is this a warning shot from the government that poor (or over) nutrition equals neglect and can be acted on? A cautionary tale for those who prefer fast food to home-cooked meals or allow seconds, thirds, and fourths on those home-cooked meals?
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that before a trend of removing children takes hold, the broader public-policy issue needs to be explored.
“A 218-pound 8-year-old is a time bomb,” Caplan acknowledged. “But the government cannot raise these children. A third of kids are fat. We aren’t going to move them all to foster care. We can’t afford it, and I’m not sure there are enough foster parents to do it. ”
Caplan said one could get ethical whiplash in a world where one arm of government is so concerned about a child’s weight that it removes him from his home, while another branch of government argues that french fries and tomato paste on pizza should be counted as servings of vegetables.
“It’s completely hypocritical, or to put it another way, a schizophrenic stance,” he said.
“It’s OK to threaten to take a kid away or charge someone more for insurance,” he said. “But it’s also OK to advertise unhealthy food and put toys in kids’ meals.”
The message going in one ear is that a Happy Meal is love, while the other ear is hearing that a Happy Meal is abuse. Meanwhile, any logical person knows that neither of those things are absolutely true.
And what about parents who choose not to vaccinate? Is that a form of medical neglect? Perhaps choosing to have your child participate in a strict athletic or artistic program from an early age would qualify as well. After all, puberty is often delayed in young women who train seriously in gymnastics and ballet. Maybe parents who choose a strict diet for their children (raw, vegan, gluten-free), based on their own eating habits would be subject to “protective supervision,” too. For which parenting decisions are we okay with the government stepping in and taking children away from their homes?
So, the boy has lost a few pounds since being in foster care, but how much emotional damage has he sustained by being separated from his family? Perhaps the weight loss is due to the stress of that very thing. Mine might have not been the healthiest environment in which to be raised, but I can’t imagine how terrible it would have been to be taken away from the only family I knew and given to a stranger who was obsessed with my weight. Richard Simmons and Susan Powter seem like cool people, but I wouldn’t want them as my mom and dad.
At 40, I’m still working on my food-equals-normalcy and stability mindset (when I’m broke, I eat, and I’m broke a lot.) but am certain that foster care would not have solved that problem. In fact, without my fat, I would not have become the person I am today. Poop jokes, and all.