July 13th, 2011
12:07 PM ET

Should parents lose custody of obese children?

Researchers from Harvard University say inadequate or unskilled parental supervision can leave severely obese children vulnerable to the societal influences that promote an unhealthy lifestyle and are suggesting that this may be a form of child abuse that authorities should act on.

In a commentary posted Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, professor Lindsey Murtagh and Dr. David S. Ludwig suggest that severely obese children be removed from their homes, and that government involvement may be justifiable because of the imminent health risks and the “parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems.”

“I can see the authors have good intentions – they want to protect the child – but the suggestions are misguided,” said ethicist Arthur Caplan in a phone conversation. “The problem with this proposal is that it puts the onus solely on the parents. This is not a problem just with individuals, this is a societal issue,” he says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the past 20 years, obesity has risen dramatically in  the United States.

An estimated 17% of children in the U.S. are considered to be obese – which is defined as a child having a body mass index or BMI that is equal to or greater than the 95th percentile for their age and gender. For example, a 10-year-old boy with a BMI of 18 would fall into the fifth percentile and be considered a healthy weight. However a 10-year-old boy with a BMI of 23 would considered obese, because his  BMI is greater than the 95th percentile.

Being extremely overweight increases a person’s risk of developing other serious health problems, like coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and mental health disorders.

“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors,” the authors say in the commentary.  They argue this would be a better alternative than the expensive and potentially dangerous weight loss surgery that is sometimes used to treat obese adolescents. 

The authors note that several states including California, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas, have legal precedent for applying this framework to overnourishment and severe obesity. Still, most state custody laws stipulate that removal of a child from the home be executed if there is reason to believe the child is likely to suffer imminent serious physical harm, injury or death.  Being obese can lead to future illness and likely early death, but it's not imminent.

Experts say sometimes good intentions, but misguided efforts may be disparaging to obese children who are trying losing weight.

The U.S Surgeon General's call to action initiative to prevent overweight and obesity has several suggestions for parents who are concerned about their child’s weight. They recommend focusing on the child's health and positive qualities, not their weight and suggest trying to gradually change the family's physical activity and eating habits, instead of making the child feel different.

soundoff (410 Responses)
  1. Craig

    Over my dead body

    July 14, 2011 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Barbara

    My son was 200 lbs. in the 4th grade. He was diagnosed with juvenile diabets by the time he was 12 years old. I worked full time and my mom helped take care of my kids. One out of my two kids was overweight and it was my son. Cooking dinner became a problem for me and take out food was much easier. If I would have known what I know now I would never have introduced fast food to my kids. My pediatrician was not on top of guiding me nutritionally with my kids.
    There is no way foster care should take these children from their parents. The foster care system cannot even take care of children without parents how could the system take on obese children? Take all the money you would spend trying to foster obese kids and educate parents when children are born. When parents take their children to their first pediatrican visit, the doctor should set up feeding schedules from the second they are born. I worked full time and my mother helped take care of my kids. Only one child was obese because eating out was quicker and took care of the dinner problem. Grandparents enjoy taking the kids out to eat.
    The real suggestion would be to get rid of all the fast food restaurants and this problem would be taken care of immediately.
    If my child would have been taken away from me when he was younger I would have been devastated and it would have wrecked our whole family. I took my son to the local hospital for education on eating proper foods but if I didn't have insurance I would not have been able to take him. Eating the right way has to start the day they are born. I was in my early 20s and I was overwhelmed by the time my son was born. If my doctor would have taken the time to explain how to properly feed my baby from formula, to the next set of fruits and vegetables I don't believe my son would have ever been overweight.
    My son is 25 years old and his weight is under control because he met a great women. Not everybody is that lucky.

    July 14, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lori

    Everyone is completely missing the reason our kids are getting chubby – lack of freedom to play outside. Why don't we get all the pedifiles, molesters, and serial killers off the streets so that it is safe for our Children to go outside and play again without being afraid? Has anyone charted the relationship between chubby kids and the escallation of child abductions since the 80's? So now parents have to be afraid of pedifiles, molesters, serial killers and the fat police? When does it end?

    July 14, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. blondeagent99

    This is ridiculous. Everyone knows with the price of food there are not very many lower income familys and people who can eat a healthy diet. Produce and meat costs are through the roof and when you are feeding a family for two weeks on a 2 week paycheck it is very hard. I live alone and I am on disability and I cannot afford produce and fruit at all. They keep forgetting that everything in this country has gone up in price except wages. These people are stupid.

    July 14, 2011 at 15:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. blondeagent99

    This is so ridiculous. The cost of fresh fruits and vegetables is way too high for a lot of lower income familys. I am on disability and I cannot afford either. Everything in this country has gone up in price except wages. What is wrong with people anyway. And if I can see through the forest why can't the government? Do they think we all have their incomes and perks? This is disgusting.

    July 14, 2011 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sojournhonduras

      Target, Dollar Tree and 99 Cent Store, all have fruits and vegetables for reasonable prices. But besides that we all must be educated that all fruits and vegetables are not created equal. For instance, potatoes are cheap, right? Potatoes are extremely starchy compared to chickpeas or squash. Peanuts are far starchy than almonds. These starchy, high cholesterol foods are keeping kids and their caretakers heavy. Education is key, even when it comes to inexpensive healthy food.

      August 13, 2011 at 22:40 | Report abuse |
  6. Mr John

    Then they need to be held responsible and pay all of the medical bills related to this problem and stop forcing companies to make things bigger. Especially for those of us that do watch out intake, exercise, do not sit for hours and hours in front of a televion set or video "gamer" - I do not want to have more and more FAT kids squeezing into seats next to me on a plane and then complaining that the airline should make the seats bigger. It is NOT acceptable to allow yourself to just be fat and do nothing about it.

    July 14, 2011 at 15:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ms. Dunlap

      That's an extremely narrow view for such a large population. No pun intended.

      July 15, 2011 at 12:05 | Report abuse |
  7. Tammy

    Do any of these Harvard researchers know anything about American foster care??? It stinks and has many "fat" kids in it too!!!

    July 14, 2011 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Performance Nutrition

    What I find really rediculous about this piece is that right next to the video and the blog, there is an advertisement for McDonalds promoting their breakfast deal for only $3.99, showing a pic of hashbrowns (overly fatty processed carbs) and their breakfast sandwich (full of fat, processed carbs) and coffee. You don't need to look any further than this to understand our problem is the culture, not just the parents. I have two kids and they don't get to eat McDonalds or any other fast food except on special occassions as a treat and then most of the times, they don't want to eat it b/c the fat makes them sick.

    July 15, 2011 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nutrijunkie22

      Props to you for actually implimenting something health concious into your children's lives. Yes there are kids with certain diseases that create a difficultly in keeping weight off, but the biggest issue with kids are parents who don't have a strong enough will to say "no" to their child. Kids don't need to be taken away from their parents, the parents just need to actually be a parent and become educated and grow a pair when it comes to eating healthy and getting exercise. Enroll kids in sports, eliminate fast food, limit technology use to 1 hour or less a day and make your kid run around outside. The resources are out there, now they just need to be utilized.

      July 20, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse |
  9. Performance Nutrition

    Way to go CNN, take the high road about obesity and doing everything to save the children at the same time you're promoting the big FAT McDonald's breakfast right next to the video. Could you possibly be more double dealing? Do you honestly not have any sponsors who promote something healthy to eat? Or maybe a public service ad promoting getting kids out to play sports. Surely there was something else you could have used to fill that spot.

    July 15, 2011 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. barb

    I thought we lived in a free country. There are somethings that is not the gov. business.

    July 19, 2011 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Aimers

    I agree that taking kids away from their parents for this IS a bit extreme...BUT if a parent allowed their 8 year old to smoke cigarttes, we'd take that child away from their parents in a heart beat...BUT Diabetes will kill an adult faster than Lung cancer and you'll mostly have SEVERE health problems from obesity MUCH sooner than a person who smokes their whole life...so MAYBE there is SOME merit to taking obses kids away from their parents. AND if we are going to take into account the costs of taking kids away from their parents then we should EQUALLY take the costs of tax payers paying for an obese childs healthcare costs for their entire lives into account as well. Education is the key here...maybe we should consider the costs of CUTTING the obesity off at the start and REQUIRE education of PARENTS to begin with.

    July 21, 2011 at 11:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Linda

    I do not agree with these researchers, lets see how big their kids are instead they should be educating us on how much sugar we eat each day I read this on http://manyrandomfacts.blogspot.com/search/label/Health that Large amounts of sugar weakens white blood cells and that it depresses the immune system. WHY DONT THEY RESERACH THIS!!!!

    July 21, 2011 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. amanda

    Before people start taking away kids they need to change what they feed our kids in the lunchroom. IM sorry but PIZZA and FRENCH FRIES not healthy. Parents cannot be with their kids 100% of the time. If a child weighs 300lbs in the 5th grade that is abuse but it is crap to take a child away for being obese. And our foster system cant bearly function as it is. Look at the children that are raised in foster care. USUALLY they are not educated and end up in prison or something else. If this passes it will be one of the worst mistakes we have ever made except for the fact that Obama was elected.

    July 22, 2011 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Larry

    You'll have to ask the large food production corporations if they approve. After all they run things when it comes to nutrition and product quality. Citizens are the victims here. The large food producers can do what they like when it comes to food production and distribution and inspection and there is nothing the government can or will do to get in the way. It's simple. If you eat any processed food product you've lost the fight. Every time you put one of these engineered products in your mouth you have given up your right to complain. Good nutrition costs more and requires some thought and consideration on your part.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Ron77

    It's not the job of the government to punish people because of their lack of education about nutrition. What is it, China? I disagree with people who say I don't have the money. It's all about budgeting. I don't make tons of money either but my grocery budget is quite high. Why, because I care about what I put in my body. On the other end, I drive a crappy car and I don't have cable. Choices!

    Too much government will kill our country. If the government needs to be involved, don't spend our money punishing people. Use that money to teach, to spread education. Give them a way to access this information so they can learn to spend their money where it matters.

    September 16, 2011 at 07:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Crystal

    NO !!!!!!! This is bogus. Pretty much 1/3 of all American children fall under the term "obese." I think the problem is with greasy American food in general not the parents. One so called "solution" would result in multipule more severe problems. Foster care would be clogged up with children who had well fit parents to begin with. Who is going to give them real unconditional love and parental guidance? People that grow up without love are more likely to become criminals (at least they with be HEALTHY criminals hahaha) Who is to say that having an obese kid means you're abusive, they are obviously eating. If the parents cannot afford to feed their children at all I could understand the lose of custody. But until then I am against this motion.

    October 18, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 30, 2011 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
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