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Should Parents of Obese Children Lose Custody?

In an opinion piece that ran last week in the Journal of American Medicine, Harvard University child obesity expert Dr. David Ludwig set a fire when he called for parents to lose custody of their obese children.

“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 said. Ludwig goes as far as to compare obesity to extreme child abuse. The thought is not without precedent: More than 10 years ago, 3-year-old Anamarie Regino was taken from her parents and placed in foster care simply because she weighed 90 pounds. When questioned about this case, Ludwig admitted that “state intervention is no guarantee of a good outcome, but to do nothing is also not an answer.”

Ludwig has received heat for this point of view, and he’s since clarified his position. He said in later publication that in 99% of the most severe cases, he would not recommend that an obese child be removed from the home. He further explained that state intervention could include financial support to families, social services, access to safe recreation areas and even parenting courses to help manage a child’s uncontrolled eating habits. “The ultimate answer to the obesity epidemic is not to blame parents, it’s to create a more healthful and supportive society,” Ludwig said.

“But until we get there, what do we do about that 14-year-old, 400-pound (182 kg) child who’s not facing increased risk of illness 20 years from now, but who’s facing life-threatening complications today?” he said in an article posted on

Would this type of situation be a case of the state going too far? Have we truly entered the era of Big Brother? Or is overfeeding your child really and truly equal to beating your child?

Kendra Thiel, California mom of 3, says : “While I also agree that childhood obesity is a problem, just looking at a child’s BMI doesn’t tell the whole story. My 9-year old would probably fall into the obese category if you went strictly by a children’s BMI calculator. What that doesn’t tell you though is that he was 11 lbs. at birth, he is now 5 feet tall, weighs 110 lbs., is solid muscle, and is closely watched by me as well as his doctor. He plays baseball and football, loves to swim, and is otherwise a pretty active kid. He loves cheeseburgers, yes, but more often will choose fruit over less healthy snacks. His doctor is not concerned about his weight or his health and thus, neither am I. Yanking a child out of this situation would definitely be more detrimental than helpful.”

Christina McMenemy, Ohio mom of 2, adds: “I hate when these types of issues are looked at in such a black-and-white manner. Sure, maybe removing a child from the home should be considered an option, but only as a last resort after everything else has been exhausted: genetic testing, counseling, home visits, visits with health care professionals and dietitians, etc. Even if it is a failure of parenting, the parents need to be given a chance to make changes before taking the drastic step of losing custody.”

Brooke Randolph, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, has had experience with similar situations. “Obesity could be considered medical neglect if a medical professional has prescribed or suggested that a child loses weight for health reasons or prescribed or suggested specific measures such as a change in diet or increased activity and the parents of said child do not follow through with those suggestions. If a parent refused to purchase medication for a child with HIV, this would also be considered medical neglect. Child Protective Services seems to approach each situation individually, looking for the best way to keep each child safe. Removal of a child from a home is generally not the first step, unless a child is in imminent physical danger. I have heard of cases when CPS became involved with a family as a result of food stored in a refrigerator in metal pots, which the family did not know is considered an inappropriate storage container.”

Randolph adds, “I think it may be more likely that we will see legislation and taxes on junk food before we see children being removed from a home as a result of obesity. I do hope that doctors’ offices that are conflicting with less than cooperative parents can offer courses and/or partner with a therapist to offer courses on techniques to make habit changes and the importance on following through with medical suggestions.”

What do you think? Should obese children be removed from their parents and sent to foster care?
Also Read:

Childhood Obesity is an Early Sign of Food Addiction

Is Childhood Obesity Abuse?

Childhood Obesity and Abuse Debate on Dr. Oz

July 25th, 2011

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(Page 1 of 1, 2 total comments)


Like your article said, this isn't an easy issue. My co-worker's daughter is a cheer dancer and is incredibly muscular, but her BMI says she's overweight, so every year the school nurse sends home a note about it. It's created some problems for their family; they have to constantly reassure her that she is, in fact, very healthy. There can also be economic barriers for parents. It's hard for the kid to play outside if the neighborhood isn't safe, it's hard to enroll a kid in soccer if you are have no money or are working 2 jobs and have no time to drive your kids around, and it can be cheaper and easier to buy processed crap if you're poor and don't have time or the knowledge to cook.

With that said, I'm not too worried that this will become a black-and-white issue, because so many kids are obese that they'd all be removed from their homes if it was. If the parents have been given financial assistance and education and still refuse to make changes to help the child lose weight, then yes, the court system and social workers should consider foster care. Most parents want what's best for their kids, so if parents are that adamant about not helping their child lose weight, I'm thinking they're not looking after the kid's best interest in other ways too.

posted Jul 27th, 2011 10:22 am


I don't think this is a "yes or no" type question. Every situation is different and needs to be addressed as such. Childhood obesity is very serious. We know it can lead to lifelong health complications. However, no two children and no two households are the same.

posted Jul 25th, 2011 10:16 pm


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