When It’s Too Involved

There is a general agreement that the government should be able to enter the family unit in order to protect children, but under what conditions? Child abuse and neglect are the obvious intervention worthy offenses, but foster care has recently removed a child due to weight issues. While the government’s intentions may have been noble, this opens a can of worms regarding fat prejudice, government authority, and classification of offenses.

Government workers were first alerted to the child’s condition after he was brought in for sleep apnea, a condition commonly associated with obesity. After working with the mother for 20 months and not seeing any improvements in his weight, the government took the boy into foster care. They argued that the mother’s inability to reduce her son’s weight was dangerously negligent due to the increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

This reasoning is troubling as fat does not cause these problems, but rather is a symptom of the true cause. Diabetes has numerous causes, but the type they’re likely worried about, type II, is caused by high blood sugar over a prolonged period. The causes of high blood pressure meanwhile are not exactly known, but range from lack of exercise, consumption of too much salt and alcohol, or stress.

If the government is trying to prevent diabetes and high blood pressure, are they going to remove children from families that engage in the other causes of these diseases? What of families where a teenager smokes? Smoking also contributes to high blood pressure, and while children and teens certainly shouldn’t be smoking, is this an offense so abhorrent that it warrants government action?

Further, this is targeting the overweight. As mentioned, the link between these diseases isn’t so much causal as correlative, yet the government removed the child because his weight failed to decline. This is a prejudicial assumption that the overweight are automatically unhealthy or are at risk for becoming unhealthy.

Consider that, according to the office of minority health, a division of the department of health and human services, African Americans are twice as likely to develop diabetes compared to whites. Should the government start taking African American or poor children because of the risk of health problems? Of course not.

That was an outrageous example, of course, as aside from genetic predispositions, there is not any causal correlation between race and diabetes. That was the point, however, that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Simply being fat doesn’t cause these illnesses; they are caused by a person’s lifestyle.

Despite this, it seems highly unlikely that government agencies are investigating thin children to test their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and risk for diabetes. Some thin children may have worse blood pressure and cholesterol rates than the overweight kids, but no one would know because fat is associated with unhealthy. If the government does choose which kids to investigate based upon weight, rather than lifestyle, they’re engaging in fat prejudice.

In fairness, this line of logic seems sound at first. Overweight children, unless they have health issues causing their weight gain, such as hormone imbalances, are fat because they eat poorly and don’t exercise. As the logic goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, except sometimes there isn’t fire, just the potential for fire.

These distinctions are good to discuss, because as Dr. Naim Alkhouri of the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital explains, the guidelines for intervention are murky. If the government isn’t sure what the guidelines are for removing children based upon weight issues, what hope do the parents have of knowing? Granted, in this case the government worked with the mother for 20 months, so it wasn’t an abrupt intervention, but if the interventions become more common, guidelines must be established.

Which leads to another question, should the government even be involved in this? The Ohio Child and Family Services website defines issues warranting an investigation as abuse, neglect or dependency. While vague, these terms likely evoke thoughts of child beaters, rapists, children addicted to crack, or other horrid examples.

When considering reasons for removing children from parents, these examples are probably the most common. This is because the removal of a child is supposed to be a worst case scenario, with a clear and present danger. There was not a sense of danger with the boy in question, as he did not have any present health issues worse than his sleep apnea, just the potential for health issues. The slippery slope argument is a specious one, but taking children from their families over potential danger is a dangerous precedent to establish.

Furthermore, removing children may not improve matters. This isn’t the same as removing a child from a family with abusive or dangerously neglectful parents; the problem, poor diet and exercise, is everywhere. In fact, the boy’s foster mother has reported having problems keeping up with his health and exercise appointments, suggesting removal wasn’t a panacea. Even if improvements are made, what happens when the child is returned home and the conditions haven’t changed? He’ll likely gain the weight back.

No one is denying the importance of keeping children healthy and fighting childhood obesity, but there is a limit to these measures. The removal of children from their families, simply because of their potential to develop serious diseases is a dangerous development. It creates precedent for removal based on conditions many wouldn’t consider justified, is prejudiced against the overweight and may not work.

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