A “modest proposal” by a Harvard University child obesity expert has sparked a firestorm of controversy. Dr. David Ludwig of the Harvard School of Public Health penned in an opinion piece in the current issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association in which he argues that parents of severely obese children should lose custody of their child. In the article, Ludwig and his co-author, lawyer Lindsey Murtagh, write:
In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable, from a legal standpoint, because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems.
Ludwig, who is also on staff at the Children’s Hospital Boston, claims there are approximately 2 million children across the United States who could be classified as extremely obese. Clinically speaking, obesity is defined in terms of body-mass index, or BMI. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which posits that obese children are those with a BMI “equal to or greater than the 95th percentile,” makes no differentiation between obesity and severe obesity.
Ludwig and Murtagh appear to be operating on the assumption that parents of severely obese children are not just responsible for their child’s condition, which may or may not be true. Rather, they paint these parents with the same broad brush as adults who physically or emotionally abuse their children. The same remedy is thus invoked to save the child from future harm—namely, by removing him or her from the abusive setting.
The only question the researchers fail to answer is “to where?” Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale Prevention Center, claims there is no evidence the state would do a better job of feeding children than their parents. In addition, the foster care system—the go-to solution among child protective service agencies nationwide—has long been recognized as broken. In fact, paradoxically, studies have found that the tendency toward obesity is greater among children in foster care.
And then there is the anecdotal evidence, such as the case of the Reginos, an Albuquerque family whose 90-pound 3-year-old daughter was wrestled away from them by government officials and placed in foster care 11 years ago. The child¸ Anamarie, was sent home after two months of what she now at age 14 describes as “hell … the longest two months of my life.” To add insult to injury, Anamarie was later diagnosed with a genetic condition that predisposed her to weight gain.
When confronted with the case details of this case, Ludwig admits, “Well, state intervention is no guarantee of a good outcome, but to do nothing is also not an answer.”
Agreed, but this is not an either-or situation. There are useful alternatives between the two extremes. Rather than squander taxpayer dollars on First Lady Michelle Obama’s war against junk food marketing—which, N.B., Ludwig and Murtagh mention in the opening paragraph of their article despite an absence of any proven correlation between food advertising and childhood obesity—perhaps a program to educate parents or diverting school funds toward improve counseling would be steps in the right direction.
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