Obese Third Grader Placed In Foster Care: The Debate Continues

Today there is a reported case of an obese third grader being placed in foster care. The rationale for this is that when a parent(s) ignores or doesn’t properly follow medical recommendations – and their child continues to suffer from extreme obesity – then the appropriate agency can petition a court and cite “medical neglect” as a rationale for temporary placement in foster care. 

I discussed this issue this summer in response to a thoughtful and provocative editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But now that we have a current news story in front of us, it seems appropriate to continue the debate.

To start, let’s be clear about one thing – a third grade boy who weighs over 200 pounds and is suffering from sleep apnea requires immediate intervention (we’re not talking about a kid who is a little heavy for his age). The health risks – both immediate and longer-term – are too great to be ignored. Let’s add to this that fundamental changes in the child’s caretaking are necessary (we’re not talking about occasionally eating too much junk food and not getting quite enough exercise) – especially since they have not happened despite medical advice.  And even if there is a medical basis (including rare but powerful genetic conditions) underlying the obesity, major lifestyle alterations will need to be made with respect to diet and activity. So the issue is how best to deliver an intervention that will be successful.

I continue to understand the frustrations of practitioners who are trying to (quite literally) save a child’s life, and watch as their suggestions are not followed. But I still disagree with the idea of taking the child away from the mother, especially since the goal is to return the child at a later time. Simply put, I think administering in-home intervention that will help teach the mom and her son how to break the extreme habits that have been formed would serve as the best platform for long-term change. As someone who is currently conducting research on family-centered interventions, I know first-hand that this is easier said than done. But to me there is much more potential for improving this family’s life – and this boy’s health – by keeping them together and devoting all the potential resources to deliver in-home care to get this family to make the changes they need to make. Sometimes families need help, and by bringing medical intervention to them in their home environment, perhaps we can make more progress in the fight against childhood obesity.

Image: Healthy Diet Via Shutterstock

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  1. by Lauren

    On November 28, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    My question is: What kind of foster home is the boy going to?

    Yes, I agree this family needed an intervention, but sometimes I get so upset by the way some people just assume children need to be taken from their homes and placed in foster care. Not all foster homes are pretty and not all foster parents care about the kids in their homes more than the small paychecks they receive.

    Is he going to a family who understands this is a medical intervention and what kind of diet and exercise routine he needs – or is he just thrown into a home with an empty spot with people who are more like his mother and don’t understand.

    Some foster parents who get overweight children think that the best way to “help” them is to make them walk 4 miles home from school in triple digits and not feeding them dinner because “obviously they’ve had enough.”

    Yes, help the child and the mother. Help the child get the medical attention he needs and help the mother get the tools she needs to be a better mother – but don’t just assume he’s getting all the help he needs in foster care. Sadly, there are some families who don’t take in children for the love of children.

  2. by Laura

    On November 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I agree with Lauren, I do not believe that foster care is a great answer, but I do not have any other suggestions and I guess it may save his life. However, I would like to bring up an issue that is not addressed by people and that is the opposite of feeding bad food to children and that is parents who regulate their childrens food intake. Now, yes, healthy choices and good portioning is fine, but a child should not be limited from food unless it is doctors orders. I have friends who deny their kids milk products and meat because they believe it makes them fat. I think this should be an issue if obesity is.

  3. by Darla

    On November 28, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I agree that an in-home intervention would be the best route to take. But that leaves a few questions:
    Have the Dr’s already tried coaching the mother?
    Who will pay for the intervention and training?
    And are the Foster parents educated in healthcare which would enable them to actually help this child?

  4. by Vanessa

    On December 3, 2011 at 3:42 am

    I would like to know HOW such a young child could ever get to 200lbs? Why wasn’t the issue addressed BEFORE it got so out of control?