Harvard Researchers: Take Obese Kids Away From Their Parents

Should the state be able to take your kid away if he gets too fat?

A group of Harvard University researchers are proposing that child welfare agencies be authorized to take severely obese children away from their parents:

As the Western world gets fatter and fatter, the solutions to slimming it down get ever more draconian. In Britain yesterday, the government issued guidelines saying “children under the age of 5, including babies who can’t walk yet, should exercise every day.” Today, in the States, a pair of Harvard scholars writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association advocate stripping away the custody rights of parents of super obese children. They’re for real!

“Despite the discomfort posed by state intervention, it may sometimes be necessary to protect a child,” said Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health. The study’s co-author, David Ludwig, says taking away peoples’ children “ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible.”

Dr. Ludwig in particular seems incredibly confident that letting the state intervene in the parent-child relationship in this manner, even to the point of terminating a parent’s rights, would be the right thing to do:

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 Ludwig, who wrote the article with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

“Despite the discomfort posed by state intervention, it may sometimes be necessary to protect a child,” Murtagh said.

(…)

Ludwig said he starting thinking about the issue after a 90-pound 3-year-old girl came to his obesity clinic several years ago. Her parents had physical disabilities, little money and difficulty controlling her weight. Last year, at age 12, she weighed 400 pounds and had developed diabetes, cholesterol problems, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.

“Out of medical concern, the state placed this girl in foster care, where she simply received three balanced meals a day and a snack or two and moderate physical activity,” he said. After a year, she lost 130 pounds. Though she is still obese, her diabetes and apnea disappeared; she remains in foster care, he said.

Of course, the case that gave Ludwig this idea is unique in some respects. The parents physical disabilities and their financial situation are not situations that arise in every case, and arguably may have contributed to the eating habits that led to the girl being obese. Trying to apply this lesson to every case, though, strikes me as being an incredible overreach and, more important, an unwarranted intrusion on the personal liberties of parents and children.

For one thing, as bio-ethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan notes, this proposal goes far beyond the current state of the law when it comes to the circumstances under which children can be removed from their parents custody:

Our laws give enormous authority to parents and rightly so. The only basis for compelling medical treatment against a parent’s wishes are if a child is at imminent risk of death — meaning days or hours — and a proven cure exists for what threatens to kill them. Obesity does not pass these requirements.

The risk of death from obesity is real, but it is way down the road for kids. There is no proven cure for obesity. The ability to treat a child with diet or a lifestyle change who does not want to be “treated” by strangers is a long shot at best. The number of kids involved — an estimated 2 million children with body-mass index above the 99th percentile — would quickly swamp already overwhelmed social service departments. And, no matter what you do with overweight children, sooner or later they are going back home where their often overweight parents will still be.

If childhood obesity, in and of itself, is sufficient justification to terminate parental rights, then what limits would there be to the state’s power in this regard? Certainly they would far more wide ranging than they are now, and parents who make choices for their children that are presently protected by the law would suddenly find themselves subject to the fear of having their children taken away from them for not engaging in “approved” parenting. Certainly there’s a place in the law for child welfare agencies that step in and act when children are being abused, or when they are being denied life-saving medical treatment. Parents have significant authority in raising their children but they don’t have the right to abuse or endanger them in this manner. However, expanding things as far as Dr. Ludwig would like to would involve a massive expansion of state power over the family, and it would swamp an already overburdened child welfare system.

Finally, even if it were true that these eperts were right on some level, the fact that their recommendations would inevitably be abused is one of the main reasons it shouldn’t be adopted:

The medical community is an increasingly popularvector for social agendas and state control of the individual. Norms about government control start narrow in theory — like “in the most extreme cases, some morbidly obese children facing imminent serious health consequences might be taken from their parents’ homes if those parents refuse to address the health problems.” In practice, though, the norms get broadened and twisted to justify social, political, and religious agendas, to increase government fiefdoms, and to wage cultural wars. The norms are implemented not by the knowledgeable professionals who envisioned them, but by bureaucrats of mixed capacity and motives under regrettable conditions. The result, amongst actual people, is inevitable: norms permitting limited state intervention into the lives of citizens are capriciously and maliciously applied, usually in a disproportionate fashion against the unpopular or the powerless. Moreover, when the state trains and equips to exercise power upon some justification, it tends to see that justification whether or not it exists. In our society, the natural and probable result of normalizing state custodial interference of extremely obese kids is not sparing application; the natural and probable result is abuse and misapplication.

Obviously, there are far too many children out there spending way too much time sitting in front of the television while eating fattening snacks and drinking sugary sodas. Stressed and busy parents often find it easier to just take the brood to McDonalds or order a pizza instead of making a healthy meal at home. In some cases, genetics and medical conditions make weight gain, which isn’t unusual in children, a more severe and harder to control problem. None of these are issues that can be solved by a bureaucrat who intervenes into the family situation and takes away a child because their BMI is too high. In the meantime, the risks to individual liberty, parental authority, and family autonomy that a proposal like this creates far outweigh the problems created by obesity. You can find ways to lose weight, getting your freedom back is much harder.

FILED UNDER: Health Care, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Oddly, I have far less of a problem with this than mandating calorie counts at fast food restarurants. I think it’s because it necessarily requires a high showing of legal and medical proof and individualized determinations, plus I think the state should more frequently intervene to modify or terminate parental rights in areas of neglect (as opposed to issues like spanking)

    Let Mika Brzezinski take them in.

  2. @PD Shaw:

    You’re okay with letting the state take away kids but god forbid they require calorie counts on a menu. Odd set of priorities, I must say.

    I oppose both

  3. Trumwill says:

    PD, I might have agreed before I became acquainted with a couple family law lawyers, who paint a pretty disturbing picture of how eager the state is to take away kids from parents they don’t like. Give them the power to define neglect, you also give them the power to define abuse (to include spanking). Britain is more pro-active than we are, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

  4. If childhood obesity, in and of itself, is sufficient justification to terminate parental rights, then what limits would there be to the state’s power in this regard?

    Ha ha, limits on the state’s power. That’s a good one.

  5. mantis says:

    Oddly, I have far less of a problem with this than mandating calorie counts at fast food restarurants.

    That is very odd.

    I for one think that parents who neglect and abuse their children are unfit, and letting/encouraging your children to be morbidly obese certainly qualifies. However, I question whether the kids would be better of in state care, and about the methods that could be used to determine whether children should be taken away. Seems to me a very risky proposition, and one probably not worth pursuing, as it could cause more harm than good.

  6. ponce says:

    I oppose both

    Huh?

    What’s wrong with calorie counts on menus?

    I wouldn’t order any other way.

  7. ratufa says:

    I like requiring fast food places to provide nutritional information. It provides more information to participants in a public market, which is generally a good thing. People are free to use that information or not.

    Taking kids from parents infringes on one of the most personal. things people do — raising their children. You need to have some pretty damn good reasons for doing so. I’m pretty reluctant to add more of them to the ones we already have, especially given the potential for abuse.

  8. Jason says:

    “In the meantime, the risks to individual liberty, parental authority, and family autonomy that a proposal like this creates far outweigh the problems created by obesity.”

    Yes, by all means, we should allow parents to kill their children after they leave the womb, by whatever “accidental” means possible. Then you don’t have to worry about the health care costs.

    (From the movie Parenthood) Tod: You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car – hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.

  9. @ponce:

    Because it doesn’t accomplish anything and because it needlessly increases the cost of doing business.

  10. Graham says:

    @ponce:

    What’s wrong with calorie counts on menus?

    Nothing. There are however a slew of problems with mandating calorie counts on menus.

    Including, but not limited to: inaccuracy outside of rigidly standardized fast-food fare, undue financial burden for small chains or single restaurants, and that they’ve been shown not to change eating habits for the better.

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    Right now it seems like the law is set up where when a child’s life is in danger due to weight problems the law can intervene. Exactly when should the State intervene would be a very problematic question? What kind of metric? BMI probably works in many cases, but not in all, so I’m reluctant to expand the power of the State in such a sweeping manner.

  12. Of course, I would note that what we have here is a researcher making a suggestion–not established policy nor even legislation.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    I think BMI could be a marker for seeking a medical consultation, but as a conclusive determiner it’s a bad idea and I don’t think it would pass Constitutional muster. Parents have a Constitutional right to raise their children; there is a steep burden to overcome.

  14. Eric Florack says:

    Ah, Harvard… that bastard bastion of conservative thought, insisting on another governmental power grab. Why am I not surprised.

  15. Eric Florack says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Of course, I would note that what we have here is a researcher making a suggestion–not established policy nor even legislation.

    That’s right enough, but clearly it would require such if we were to take his advice. Government would have to assert it’s control over the parents and legislation at least would be required.
    Equally clearly, a parent’s fundamental rights are not high on this researcher’s agenda. Here’s yet another case where the government and it’s power gets expanded under the age old cry of the left: “It’s for the Children”

  16. Eric Florack says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Does the constitution directly address a parent’s rights?

  17. @Eric Florack: Yes, but one has to take into consideration what the likelihood is that said suggestion will be followed.

  18. steve says:

    Since I take care of a lot of these kids, I would suggest better metrics than BMI. Severe sleep apnea, evidence of heart failure, poorly controlled diabetes associated with very high BMIs should be used. IOW, there should be evidence that the obesity, and we will talking about the super-morbid obese, not the standard obese group, is resulting in damage. It would need to be done on an individualized basis. If you want to wait until death is hours or days away, the damage may not be reversible. But, if you think that parents should have the liberty to kill these kids, would you at least have the decency to pass a law exempting me from liability when caring for these kids. Some of them scare the shit out of me.

    Steve

  19. Eric Florack says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, but one has to take into consideration what the likelihood is that said suggestion will be followed.

    hmmmmm
    I apparently consider that likelihood much higher than you yourself do. Im looking, particularly, at the Verdon’s point. Once the argument is made that the government has the power over the parent, and particularly once that precedent is set into law, eventually all restrictions on that power are removed.

    (They came for the fat kids, but my kids weren’t fat, so I said nothing…..)

  20. Pete says:

    What scares me is that supposedly intelligent people are even debating this. When will all the “washed” stop trying to meddle in the lives of the “unwashed?” Unbelieveable!

  21. anjin-san says:

    What’s wrong with calorie counts on menus?

    It forces God-fearing conservative Americans to live as slaves…

  22. JKB says:

    Hey, children are a choice so why shouldn’t having them open you to an abrogation of privacy, freedoms and choice? It’s only for 18 years.

    On the other hand, Harvard brainiacs always know what’s right. They got pie charts and everything. And it’s not like if their kids do something like murder their brother they can’t use their influence to keep even criminal investigators at bay.

  23. PD Shaw says:

    @Eric Florack: The U.S. Constitution does not in my opinion address parental rights. My view here.

    It doesn’t matter; the majority of the SCOTUS has indicated that parents have rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, so it assures me that parental rights will not be terminated without individualized determinations that a real health risk exists and that parents will have a right of due process to defend the state action. I’m far more comfortable with evaluating on medical standards the risk that parents pose to their children than the less objective standards of what parents ought to be doing.

  24. PD Shaw says:

    @steve: Sounds reasonable to me.

  25. Ben Wolf says:

    How about we just prosecute the parents of children who die of over nourishment? That way we can get around the whole “power-grab” deal and the premature deaths will decrease the surplus population. Everybody wins.

  26. Ben Wolf says:

    The idea of employing government power to ensure health is the left-wing end of the public health spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum we have the typical Reason subscriber discussing health care for the elderly:

    Jim|7.13.11 @ 1:44PM|#
    So they’ll get old, and since they can’t afford treatments for old-age illnesses, they’ll die, and the problem takes care of itself.

    Unless [liberals] and [their] ilk step in and demand that we tax ourselves into oblivion, because allowing anyone to die of natural causes when it could have otherwise been prevented is murder. Or something along those lines.

    Do we really have to choose between one of these?

  27. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    These Harvard researchers might be onto something.

    After the government takes away all the fat kids from their negligent parents and gets them physically fit — on the public dime, of course, since public money grows on trees and doesn’t cost anything — we should expand the program to socially engineer a master race of supermen and superwomen.

    To that end:

    The government should take away stupid kids from their parents and get them up to speed. Obviously if a kid is stupid that means his or her parents are unfit. The government would do a better job in wising that kid up. Forget about parental rights. Forget about individual liberties. That’s so passe. Look, we need smart kids to support our various “entitlement” programs; stupid just won’t cut it anymore, especially with the boomers beginning to drain the system. Government bureaucracy is the answer.

    Next the government also should take away clumsy kids from their parents and fix them up too. There’s too much risk they won’t be picked to play basketball after school, which could result in them getting too fat (which would require an intervention in any event), not to mention losing their self esteem to boot. They might also fall down and injure or even kill themselves. We need athletic and graceful kids to hold down those jobs that illegal aliens won’t do. Government bureaucrats are the ticket to turning every kid into the next Olympic-caliber gymnast.

    Also, the government should take away ugly kids from their parents and get them fixed up. A nip here. A tuck there. Maybe a boob job. Some penile enlargement. A new hairdo. Voila! Hot to trot and ready to mingle. Because we need population growth, Skippy Lou. That baby bust generation is on track to destroy our economy. The better people look the more they’ll fornicate. Which means more taxpayers. And more workers. Which exactly is what you need in a utopian paradise.

  28. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II: Do you prefer to communicate in hyperbole, or are you consistently in an angry, combative mood?

  29. steve says:

    Query- Do parents have the right to poison their kids? To kill them?

    Steve

  30. Liberty60 says:

    Taking children away is right up there with imprisonment and execution, as one of the most severe powers a state can exercise- which means it has to be done IMO, with the most stringent safeguards.

    With the possible exception of life-threatening morbid obesity, I just don’t see how simple obesity is compelling enough.

    Oh, Tsar, you forgot-
    Up next, the State should force women to carry pregnancy to term, and investigate and prosecute any questionable miscarriages, since the uterus’ of America are the lawful property of the State. And of course, investigating and prosecuting any reports of sodomy and “unnatural” sexual behavior, and artificial birth control.

    as long as we are on that sort of rant….

  31. mike says:

    Allowing your children to get obese? How is that not child abuse if it sets them up for so many life threatening lifelong illnesses? I am not saying terminate parental rights but CPS intervention is necessary at some level to protect the child. The ability to have a child does not give you free reign to endanger a child’s health once a child is born.

  32. Rob in CT says:

    Well said, Liberty60. Not all state powers are equal, and this one’s a doozy. The bar has to be set REALLY high. I don’t think childhood obesity (awful as it can be) qualifies.

  33. john personna says:

    I don’t think it’s the stressed parents and “new normal” pudgy kids at the TV that are the target here.

    I think we’ve all seen the obese families who seem to be saying, with their 5 year old, “see, my choice of lifestyle is valid!”

    Pumping up the kid, to the scale in the photo above, might just be abuse.

  34. Eric Florack says:

    @PD Shaw:

    The U.S. Constitution does not in my opinion address parental rights.

    Nor mine, hence the question. The founders apparently figured the question to be one not addressable by law and government. But what to do about the left, then, who thinks nothing is above the law and government is the end all and be all? That way lies, for example the spectre of Micelle Obama scarfing down an 1100 calorie burger lunch whie screaming at us that we should eat our peas.

  35. john personna says:

    I’ve had 1100 calories Eric, and it’s not even 10 am.

    Of course I climbed San Jacinto yesterday. It was beautiful.

  36. Steve Verdon says:

    Taking children away is right up there with imprisonment and execution, as one of the most severe powers a state can exercise- which means it has to be done IMO, with the most stringent safeguards.

    Right and the government has never imprisoned the innocent or even executed them…oh wait…never mind.

  37. Franklin says:

    @steve: Good point, it’s a relevant question here. If you poisoned your kid and this was proven in a court of law, you would be in some legal trouble. But poison is a matter of degree; you can tolerate a little bit of arsenic, for example. Constantly overfeeding your children sugar is essentially poisoning them.

  38. Prin says:

    I am just livid over this. Yet again the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged are having to bend over for corporate greed. I say corporate greed because were it not for all the additives they put in food ie salt, sugars, msg, hormones, antibiotics to enable them to profit from what they sell us to eat, then maybe obesity and the health problems that come along with it, wouldn’t be a factor. Hey, Harvard…how about researching ways to fix that before you suggest we rip someone’s family apart, causing untold future psychological damage in the process! Or how about researching the crap the schools serve every friggin day? Or how about researching just how you lost your mind? I would think someone with a harvard education would have at least read the crib notes for David Copperfield…yeah, let’s go back to that, shall we?

  39. Prin says:

    shoot, i had a brain fart…Oliver twist LOL

  40. @Doug Mataconis: The cost of business is more important than our health? You tell me to be responsible for themselves, well they can’t be if companies aren’t forthcoming.