If a parent was starving a child, and you knew it, you would want the state to remove the little boy or girl to foster care, right? To save his or her life. It wouldn’t just be a matter of food choices or parental rights. It would be a matter of safety, of life and death even. So why do we hesitate in the reverse, when the parent is overfeeding the child and the child’s life is similarly in danger?
The topic of parental rights and severely obese children pinched our collective nerve recently when an article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that argued that, in the most severe cases, where imminent threat of life-threatening complications is possible, removing the child to foster care should be considered.
That thought, the thought of separating a child from his parents because of his weight, did not sit well with us.
“I feel like it’s opening a Pandora’s box,” author DeAnne Flynn said on "A Woman’s View." “What is mental cruelty? What is sitting in front of the TV watching violence too often? How do you say obesity is more important? Because it’s measurable? I think education is the key.”
“This is probably too much Big Brother,” Crystal Young-Otterstrom from Utah Symphony and Opera agreed. “Where do you say it’s genetics? Where do you say it’s bad food? Where is it the child’s fault, like my husband hides cookies around the house? It’s an education effort. Parents need to learn how they’re hurting their kids.”
Yes. Everyone would agree education is necessary, but at some point you have to talk about safety. Rachelle Call was a social worker and is now an addiction counselor and singer/songwriter. “I actually did remove kids from their homes, not for obesity. I would monitor the situation. It was often a situation of learned helplessness, a generational problem. I would ask myself, ‘Is this going to get better?’ Because the ultimate question is safety. 'Are you safe? Are you safe with the people entrusted with your care?'”
Is a child safe in a home where he or she is morbidly obese and is continually fed food in amounts that don't address the problem? Is that safety? Is that child abuse or neglect? Child abuse or neglect is defined, in part, as “an act or failure to act on the part of the parent or caretaker which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” Do you consider diabetes an imminent risk of serious harm? Is a 400-pound 12-year-old in imminent risk of serious harm? In the same way that a starving 12-year-old would be? Is that child safe?
“Safety feels like you’re protected,” Call said, “like there’s an awareness of you as a child.” I have to ask myself, is the parent of a morbidly obese child aware of him as a child? Does that parent realize that this child can’t make decisions on his own? He doesn’t know he’s not supposed to eat all that food. He doesn’t know it’s not a substitute for love. He doesn’t understand limitations unless you teach him, much the same way he doesn’t understand he isn’t supposed to stay up all night or run out into the street or drink alcohol or do any number of other things unless you teach him. That’s our job. Our job is to be aware of him as a child, not a mini-adult who can take care of himself and make his own decisions, but as a child. Keeping him safe involves setting boundaries for him, and if we aren’t setting those boundaries, in the extreme cases, we’re not keeping him safe.
These doctors who wrote the JAMA article were not advocating that we go around and round up all the fat kids and put them in foster care. If they were, my parents would have lost me at 13. This is less than 1 percent of the childhood population we’re talking about here, the ones who are in as much imminent physical danger as the children who are starving to death, only in the reverse. And I understand how our sense of parental autonomy kicks in. My child’s weight ought to be none of your business. And in general, it’s not.
Not until his safety is at risk. And then he is everyone’s business. Because we parents simply do not have the right to harm our children to that degree. Don’t get me wrong. We harm our children all the time with our imperfect parenting, all the best intentions notwithstanding. But there is a line, and we as a society have agreed the line is imminent risk of serious harm. Safety. That is where my right to supersize ends and your right to downsize begins.