In a first-time-ever incident, an eight year old boy from Cleveland Heights was taken away from his family and sent to a foster home after county workers believed that his mom was not doing enough to control his weight.
Weighing more than 200 pounds, the third grader is said to be at a high risk of developing diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
The state department estimates that there are more than 12 percent of children in the third grade who are severely obese but this is the first time that a child has been taken from his family because he was found to be overweight.
The nation is already debating the issue of social service agencies stepping in when parents have failed to address their child’s weight issues, but this latest incident only adds fire to the hot topic.
Some even feel that the government policies are not balanced when it comes to tackling obesity cases. On one hand unhealthy food advertisements and freebies offered with fast food are allowed, and on the other, such strict measures are taken where children are separated from their family.
Mary Louise Madigan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Family Services said that case workers case workers considered the mother’s inability to get her son’s weight down are a form of medical neglect and that is why they made the decision. She adds that the mother’s neglect caused the problem and she was not following doctor’s orders.
“This child’s problem was so severe that we had to take custody,” Madigan said.
The agency has worked with the mother for more than a year before asking Juvenile Court for custody of the child, she said.
The mother is a substitute elementary school teacher who is also taking vocational school classes. Her lawyers feel that the county overreacted and did not even consider the emotional setback the boy might go through after he was snatched away from his family.
“I think we would concede that some intervention is appropriate,” Juvenile Public Defender Sam Amata said. “But what risk became imminent? When did it become an immediate problem?”
Amata argued that children are usually taken away from their family in case of physical abuse, neglect or undernourishment. As a public defender he had also seen many cases where children of parents with severe drug problem were left at home because there was no immediate threat to the child.
In the case of this child though apart from the weight issue, there was no other problem. He was an honorary student and participated actively in school activities. Currently the only health problem the child suffered was sleep apnea and he wore a machine at night to help control his breathing.
“They are trying to make it seem like I am unfit, like I don’t love my child,” the boy’s mother said. “Of course I love him. Of course I want him to lose weight. It’s a lifestyle change, and they are trying to make it seem like I am not embracing that. It is very hard, but I am trying.”
The child was taken from his school on October 19 and the mother can only see him once a week for two hours. He is currently with a foster family.
The case will be put up next month in front of a juvenile court judge and a trial is set on the child’s 9th birthday.
The county workers came to know about the child’s weight problem when in early 2010 the mother had taken him to hospital because of his breathing problems. He was given the breathing machine after sleep apnea was found. Social workers began monitoring him under protective supervision.
The child started to lose weight but in the last few months has regained some weight and that’s when the county intervened.
The mother says that she did restrict her child’s diet and bought him a bicycle as the doctor suggested. The weight increase might have been due to other siblings or friends giving the child extra food behind her back and she did confront him about it.
She also wonders if the child’s condition could be genetic as both she and her husband are overweight, though her 16 year old son is tall and thin.
The mother also agreed to enroll the child in a special Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital program called Healthy Kids, Healthy Weight. That program has evaluated more than 900 overweight and obese children from the ages of 4 to 8 since 2005. A team of specialty doctors, nutritionists, psychologists and others treat the children and work to educate families about creating healthy eating habits.
Dr. Naveen Uli, a pediatric endocrinologist and co-director of the program said that children were now showing critical ailments like diabetes and hypertension at a very young age and the program helped but the intervention needed to be targeted for the while family.
Uli said many families in the program found it difficult to relearn how to eat, to read and translate confusing food labels and to make the healthy choices. Not all families complete the intense 12-week program, or they are unwilling or unable to grasp the seriousness of the threat, he said.
He said that currently there is no policy to call county workers if a family does not complete the program but doctors can call if they think the child is at risk. He also said that most children do not need immediate medical attention but need the risks to be zeroed down.
He added that family unit needed to be intact and if that did not work then other interventions could be derived.
But there are some experts who feel that intervention from social services is the current need.
Earlier this year, Dr. David Ludwig, Harvard University professor and pediatric obesity expert, urged children’s services agencies to intervene in severe cases when parents have failed to address a weight problem that leads to imminent health risks.
The doctor is the co-author of an article that appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association and said that first other interventions should be done and removing the child should be the last resort. He gave the example of a 12 year old who was 400 pounds and had already developed diabetes, cholesterol problems, high blood pressure and sleep apnea — conditions that could kill her before the age of 30.
Yet others question whether taking a child away from his family is a solution at all.
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, warned 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. “
He also worried that families with fewest resources might face the brunt of this policy.
The expert also said that while government was putting away the child to a foster home for being overweight, it was also promoting tomato sauce and French fries as vegetable servings.
“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.”
With this case the county workers feel that separating the boy from his family might be helpful as in the last month he has lost weight living with the foster family.
On the other hand the defence lawyer says the family is having difficulty keeping appointments for the child. There was even a discussion about getting the foster mother additional help or moving the child again, this time to a foster home with a personal trainer, Amata said.
“I wonder why they didn’t offer the mother that kind of extra help,” Amata said.
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