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Is Having Obese Children Child Abuse?

Is giving your children fast food and soda a form of neglect? And if it is, will taking them away from their parents help?

How far is too far when it comes to simply feeding your children? In an opinion column published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two Harvard-affiliated doctors made the case that morbidly obese kids should be considered endangered and removed from their homes. Is unhealthy living a form of abuse?

Nearly one in three American children is now overweight or obese, according to the National Heart Association. In some communities, that number is even higher: More than 40 percent of Mexican-American male children are too heavy, as are nearly 40 percent of black women. In Georgia, 37 percent of kids between 10 and 17 are overweight. With an increasing number of young people developing Type 2 diabetes before they're even out of high school, and others dying of obesity as early as age 3, two things are clear: 1. Something needs to be done; and 2. Leaving it up to the parents isn't working in many homes.

David Ludwig and Lindsey Murtagh, the authors of the op-ed, say they're not Draconian moralists out to shame bad parents and break up homes. Rather, they advocate taking unfit children away only temporarily, just long enough to help the child lose weight and teach his caregivers about nutrition and healthy living. Government intervention, Ludwig told NPR, "ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible."

Bolstering Ludwig and Murtagh's case is that children can and do get removed from their homes for food-related issues, but it's generally because they suffer from a lack of food. Can the same theory be applied to children who struggle with sleep apnea because they're getting too much of the wrong kinds of food?

Whether you agree with it or not, kids have already started being taken from their homes for being too overweight. Ludwig says the idea for state intervention in obesity cases came to him when he met a 90-pound 3-year-old whose parents were poor, disabled, and unable to control her weight. By the time she was 12, she weighed 400 pounds and had developed diabetes, at which point the Massachusetts Department of Protective and Family Services intervened and removed her from her home. Within a year of government care, she'd lost 130 pounds and her diabetes was gone. She's still obese, says Ludwig, but she's getting better all the time, which is why she remains in government care.

The state can take away as many children as they want, but sometimes you just can't legislate good behavior. You certainly couldn't in the case of Washington, D.C.'s, Terrell Hunter, also known as "Heavy T." Profiled in 2007 by the Washington City Paper, Hunter was a morbidly obese teenager whose weight problem got so bad so early that it had misaligned the bones in his knees. Hunter's mother was charged with neglect by the state and he was placed in an anti-obesity program that saw him lose 137 pounds and get surgery on his aching legs. As he improved, Hunter's mother gradually regained custody of her son, first a couple days a week, then more. Eventually, Heavy T got to be back at home full time, where he promptly gained all the weight back. Earlier this year, Hunter died from obesity. He wasn't even 20.

photo (cc) via Flickr user cliff1066

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