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Parents would lose custody of obese kids
Doctor, lawyer call for removing child from home in severe cases
Question of the Day
CHICAGO — Should parents of extremely obese children lose custody for not controlling their kids' weight? A provocative commentary in one of the nation's most distinguished medical journals argues yes, and its authors are joining a quiet chorus of advocates who say the government should be allowed to intervene in extreme cases.
It has happened a few times in the U.S., and the opinion piece in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association argues that putting children temporarily in foster care is in some cases more ethical than obesity surgery.
Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital Boston, said the point isn't to blame parents, but rather to act in children's best interest and get them help that for whatever reason their parents can't provide.
State intervention "ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible. That may require instruction on parenting," said Dr. Ludwig, who wrote the article with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and a researcher at Harvard's School of Public Health.
But University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan said he worries that the debate risks putting too much blame on parents. Obese children are victims of advertising, marketing, peer pressure and bullying - things a parent can't control, he said.
"If you're going to change a child's weight, you're going to have to change all" of the other factors, Mr. Caplan said.
Roughly 2 million U.S. children are extremely obese. Most are not in imminent danger, Dr. Ludwig said. But some have obesity-related conditions such as Type-2 diabetes, breathing difficulties and liver problems that could kill them by age 30. It is these kids for whom state intervention, including education, parent training, and temporary protective custody in the most extreme cases, should be considered, the researcher said.
Jerri Gray, a Greenville, S.C., single mother who lost custody of her 555-pound 14-year-old son two years ago, said authorities don't understand the challenges families may face in trying to control their kids' weight.
"I was always working two jobs so we wouldn't end up living in ghettos," Ms. Gray said. She said she often didn't have time to cook, so she would buy her son fast food. She said she asked doctors for help for her son's big appetite but was accused of neglect.
Her sister has custody of the boy, now 16. The sister has the money to help him with a special diet and exercise, and the boy has lost more than 200 pounds, Ms. Gray said.
"Even though good has come out of this as far as him losing weight, he told me just last week, 'Mommy, I want to be back with you so bad.' They've done damage by pulling us apart," Ms. Gray said.
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