Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Obese Child Seized by State

Ohio officials have taken an eight-year-old child away from his mother and placed him into foster care because they believe his mother has been unable to help the child control his weight. (The boy weighs 200 pounds, while normal weight for an 8-year-old is 60.) State authorities had been working with the mother to reduce the boy's weight for 20 months. The boy has been diagnosed with sleep apnea. In this interview, Art Caplan offers several reasons why the state's move was wrong: the removal from his mother will cause emotional turmoil; there's no proof that foster care will help control the boy's weight; the foster-care system is already overwhelmed and there are too many morbidly obese kids to make this a viable policy; the boy will eventually return home, where bad habits and social conditions may not have changed during his absence; and, finally, while the boy's weight places him at high risk for future disease, his obesity does not put him in the kind of imminent danger normally needed to justify removal from the home. On this last point, bioethicist Norm Fost disagrees; he's quoted in the first article linked above as saying that the boy's sleep apnea could be placing him in imminent danger.

Removing the child from home can't be the right approach. It may be true that his mother is incapable of taking basic steps to control his weight. But even on that assumption, his obesity is likely to have social, emotional and physical origins that even very fine foster care will be ill-equipped to address. Perhaps he'll lose weight when he's away from his home--or perhaps the emotional turmoil will make it harder for him to lose weight. In any case, he'll eventually return home, and what will happen then? Meantime, his mother is surely learning the wrong lesson about the benevolence of state interventions on her son's behalf.

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