Junkfood Science: Another fat child custody case

February 26, 2007

Another fat child custody case

News around the world has been following the story of the eight-year old boy in North Tyneside, England who is already nearly the size of an adult man, at 5 feet tall, with size 8 shoes and weighing 89 kg (196 pounds). State officials have threatened to take the child away from his mother and place him in child protective custody because he is too fat, unless his mother improves his diet. A custody hearing was scheduled for today.

The situation has sparked controversy about the role of government in the lives of families and if the panic over childhood obesity is reason or prejudice.

Government health officials have equated his size to parental abuse and neglect and pediatricians have accused the family of “slowly killing him.” This is despite assurances by the mother that he is well cared for. In a Guardian article, the director of the National Obesity Forum in Nottingham, England, called the child’s situation “extremely dangerous” and that intervention was necessary because the boy was at risk of dying by the time he is 30 years of age and developing diabetes, heart disease and “nervous system problems” in his 20s.

No science was cited to support such claims.

One editorial in the Times UK noted that the government is moving to take custody, even though the child has already lost one and a half stone since Christmas due to the mother’s efforts to keep him on a diet. The author asks:

One then has to ask how the child, or the mother, is likely to be improved by his being placed in care. It cannot be sensible. Children in care have a higher chance of going on to commit crime, to underachieve and to end up mired in poverty. It is a step that should only be taken as a last resort: but North Tyneside Council appears not to have waited for that.

The most powerful commentary and food for thought was written by Mike Hume, editor-at-large of Spiked-online:

One fat kid versus a lean, mean army of meddlers

The crusaders running the “war on obesity” are toying with a new weapon: interning children without trial....Time was when fat kids only had to fear the school bully. Now they and their parents risk being bullied by a gang of authorities and experts. Complaining that “People pick on us ’cos of my weight”, Connor says he is “sick of the nutters always shouting at us.” To those picking on his family he can now add two specialist obesity nurses, a consultant paediatrician, two social workers and a police officer, who will all be at the conference....

It is hard to speculate about the causes of obesity in an individual case (although we might note that while Connor is overweight, he is also reportedly 5ft tall with size eight feet — hardly the average eight-year-old). But we can say that none of these antiobesity interventions has been shown to be effective, from the fat camps to care orders pioneered in America. A “strict regime” of diet and exercise may have helped Connor to lose 9kg in two months. The longer-term prospects of success remain slim. What boys like him could do with is a life, not a “regime.”

Indeed, coercive interventions are worse than useless. They can do real harm to those on the receiving end. Connor’s frightened mum said that the prospect of him being taken into care would “be the death of me.”

That there can even be serious discussion about removing children from loving families reflects some fatheaded prejudices. There is a morbid obsession with overweight kids, marked by overblown warnings about child obesity time bombs and epidemics. And there is a bitter prejudice against working-class parents — those crisp-wielding “f***ing a***holes, tossers, idiots” as St Jamie Oliver branded them last year — while Ken Livingstone, the Miserabilist of London, decreed that mothers passing junk food to hungry schoolchildren should be arrested....

[Photo: Scott Heppell, AP]

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