Throw Mama from the (gravy) train

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.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

4 comments on Throw Mama from the (gravy) train

  1. anonymous on said:

    Sadly, this is the result of a society that does not hold up standards for education, parenting, and basic health.

    Medical science tells us that exercise does not make up for bad diet and genes, HOWEVER, behavioral science tells us that a regimen that includes good exercise and sleep can make all the difference in preventing and battling obesity.

    If the parents are unwilling or unable to supply such a regimen, then perhaps they can at least insist their schools do so. Unfortunately, there are too many excuses out there- from parents, from schools, from the lawyers they employ, and from society in general.

    It may sound harsh, but what if school kids could not buy hot lunches at school? What if their only choice was to either bring food from home or eat unpeeled, fresh fruit from an endless trough? Would that make a difference in their diet? (Because it would certainly save school budgets).

    I suggested that to a School Board person in the past and was reminded that sometimes students only get balanced, hot meals at school, and that perhaps it would be cruel to take that away.

    Perhaps, but is obesity crueler?

  2. Claire on said:

    I think that instead of asking schools to supply food in troughs for the children to pick and choose from, which sounds so gross, that they get rid of the ice cream bars, candy bars, sodas, diet sodas, and ONLY serve vegetables, fruit, lean meats, good starches, etc. It is true that some children only get a hot meal at school. Have you heard of the Food Banks backpack program? This is a real issue and to take that away is inhumane. You cannot punish the children because their parents are in dire straits when it comes to money.

  3. anonymous on said:

    cruel? inhumane? But the question is where does personal responsibility come in?

    Realizing the amount of waste that happens in these school cafeteria programs, I might be willing to settle for something that was more practical even if it might seem ‘so gross’ to some folks.

    And when you consider the extent of the obesity epidemic and its future costs, I much less sympathetic to parents’ money problems. There is no excuse. Standards must be kept.

    It seems like what we are doing is punishing the children AND the schools because the parents not taking responsibility.

  4. gerry crilin on said:

    oh sure.. lets put MORE responsibility on the teachers and school personnel to correct and provide yet another basic form of family education that lazy parents cannot. considering we get properly paid and everything…..jesus. I get 25 minutes of my own lunch.. if im lucky. AND make 11 dollars an hour to teach special ed. TAKE some responsibility for your children. let the teachers educate the students and teach them the piles of REQUIRED curriculum their jobs are hanging on, so they dont have to re-teach them how stupid and unhealthy it is to have doritos and mountain dew as a viable snack option for anyone under 20.

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