County places obese Cleveland Heights child in foster care
Cleveland.com: An 8-year-old Cleveland Heights boy was taken from his family and placed in foster care last month after county case workers said his mother wasn’t doing enough to control his weight. At more than 200 pounds, the third-grader is considered severely obese and at risk for developing such diseases as diabetes and hypertension.
But even though the state health department estimates more than 12 percent of third-graders statewide are severely obese — that could mean 1,380 in Cuyahoga County alone — this is the first time anyone in the county or the state can recall a child being taken from a parent for a strictly weight-related issue.
The case plays into an emerging national debate that has some urging social-service agencies to step in when parents have failed to address a weight problem.
Others suggest there’s hypocrisy in a government that would advocate taking children away for being overweight while saying it’s OK to advertise unhealthy food and put toys in fast-food kids’ meals.
Cuyahoga County does not have a specific policy on dealing with obese children. It removed the boy because case workers considered this mother’s inability to get her son’s weight down a form of medical neglect, said Mary Louise Madigan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Family Services. They said that the child’s weight gain was caused by his environment and that the mother wasn’t following doctor’s orders — which she disputes.
“This child’s problem was so severe that we had to take custody,” Madigan said. The agency worked with the mother for more than a year before asking Juvenile Court for custody of the child, she said.
Lawyers for the mother, a substitute elementary school teacher who is also taking vocational school classes, think the county has overreached in this case by arguing that medical conditions the boy is at risk for — but doesn’t yet have — pose an imminent danger to his health.
They question whether the emotional impact of being yanked from his family, school and friends was also considered. “I think we would concede that some intervention is appropriate,” Juvenile Public Defender Sam Amata said. “But what risk became imminent? When did it become an immediate problem?”
Amata said that in his decades as a public defender, he has seen children left in homes with parents who have severe drug problems or who have beaten their children, with the reasoning that there isn’t an immediate danger to the child.
In this case, Amata said, other than having a weight problem, the boy was a normal elementary school student who was on the honor roll and participated in school activities.
Records show the child’s only current medical problem, sleep apnea, is being treated and that he wears a machine nightly that helps and monitors his breathing. “They are trying to make it seem like I am unfit, like I don’t love my child,” the boy’s mother said. “Of course I love him. Of course I want him to lose weight. It’s a lifestyle change, and they are trying to make it seem like I am not embracing that. It is very hard, but I am trying.”
The mother said that social workers took her son from his school on Oct. 19 and told her she could see him only once a week for two hours. The boy is living in a foster home.
Next month, the two sides will debate the case in front of a Juvenile Court magistrate, who will decide what is in the boy’s best interest. A trial is set on the child’s 9th birthday.
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that before a trend of removing children takes hold, the broader public-policy issue needs to be explored.
“A 218-pound 8-year-old is a time bomb,” Caplan acknowledged. “But the government cannot raise these children. A third of kids are fat. We aren’t going to move them all to foster care. We can’t afford it, and I’m not sure there are enough foster parents to do it. ”
Caplan said one could get ethical whiplash in a world where one arm of government is so concerned about a child’s weight that it removes him from his home, while another branch of government argues that french fries and tomato paste on pizza should be counted as servings of vegetables.
In the Cleveland Heights case, county workers believed that disconnecting the boy from his family, at least temporarily, might help. And he has lost a few pounds in the last month.
But now lawyers for the mother say they’ve been told that the foster mother who has the child in a neighboring suburb is having trouble keeping up with all of his appointments. There was even a discussion about getting the foster mother additional help or moving the child again, this time to a foster home with a personal trainer, Amata said.
I’m torn on this. Who knows if this kid is sneaking off after school to 7-11 to chow down on Twinkies? Parents can’t be with their kids 24/7. Granted, the parents should be getting this kid to exercise and should be alongside him (both parents are overweight too). But to remove the kid from the home? And if he loses weight and moves home then gains it back, will they remove him again?
There’s this issue too – yanking a kid from his parents because of the possibility of future health problems? Now that’s just downright scary to me. What if this kid starts smoking at say 13 – yank him out again? Government cannot protect every single child in every single home from parents that are just lazy or don’t care, or that make an effort yet their child doesn’t positively respond.
Where do you draw the line?