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December 5th, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Last week, the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Child Protective Services took an 8-year-old boy from his mother and put him in foster care.  The reason?  He’s overweight – massively overweight.  When he was taken into foster care, he weighed 218 pounds.

Now, it doesn’t take a medical professional to tell us that an 8 year old who weighs that much has serious health problems already and with more to come.  Everything from diabetes, to bone and joint issues to heart and respiratory problems and more await a child who starts life that big.  So the county child welfare agency took him into foster care citing “medical neglect and the possibility of future health problems” for doing so.

At first blush, it might be easy to say the agency did the right thing.  After all, what mother would allow a child that young to become that large?  But, in a development I find salutary, many people are coming forth to question the county’s action.

For one thing, no one seems to know why the boy is so overweight.  Apparently Mom (no one in this case has yet been publicly named) enrolled the boy in a hospital program for overweight children and he lost some weight, but then regained it.  Both his parents battle weight problems, so it’s likely that there’s a genetic component involved.

Into the bargain, the child does very well in school, having won awards for his classroom performance.

So what’s to be gained by placing him in foster care?  Will the foster parents have some magic potion to give the boy to make him lose weight?  Has the mother truly neglected the problem of her son’s weight?  Does she allow him to eat whatever he wants?  From all the articles I’ve read, it seems like she’s cognizant of the problem and has made efforts to address it but without success.  If that’s in fact the case, I’d call the county’s action inappropriate.  I expect we’ll know more as the case unfolds.  As it stands, Mom has a lawyer who says the county overreached.

This article tells us the perspective of a woman who was obese as a child and who was taken from her parents by a child welfare agency (Dayton Daily News, 12/3/11).

Do the physical health benefits of separating a child from his mother outweigh the emotional impact?

A teenage girl who was taken away from her mother a decade ago when she was a 90-pound 3-year-old has an opinion about that.

“They say it’s for the well-being of the child, but it did more damage than any money or therapy could ever do to fix it,” Anamarie Regino said in an ABC News interview earlier this year.

“To get better, you need to be with your family, instead of being surrounded by doctors.”

Anamarie didn’t improve at all in foster care, and she was returned to her parents. She later was diagnosed with a genetic predisposition.

That of course is the real issue – does the county’s action do more good than harm?  My guess is that in the boy’s case as in Anamarie’s the answer will likely be ‘no.’  I seriously doubt that whatever problems the boy has will be much helped by subjecting him to the type of trauma being taken from his mother entails.  If his problem is genetic, foster care can’t possibly improve matters; if it’s not, the emotional blow will likely make things worse.  Such at least is Anamarie Regino’s message to us.

At 13, Anamarie is no expert on the medical side of the issue.  But some people who defend the county’s move don’t seem to have Anamarie’s grasp of what happens to a child, particularly one as young as eight, who’s taken from his parents.  It’s one of the primary questions that should be answered before any decision is made to take a child into foster care -” is what we’re doing likely to improve the situation?” 

 There seems to be a built in assumption among many bureaucrats, but particularly among CPS workers.  They see a problem and automatically assume that what they do will be better than the status quo.  Something needs to be done, so they do… something.  Specifically, they do what they do, which in this case is to take the child out of his home and into foster care.

Coincidentally, that attitude is displayed in the article thus:

“Well, state intervention is no guarantee of a good outcome, but to do nothing is also not an answer,” responds a Harvard pediatrics professor who has written that “state intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity.”

True, but what if there were more options than foster care and “to do nothing”?  Indeed, my guess is that there are such options, but if there aren’t, there should be.

As I’ve mentioned before, first in a post on the Big Brother behavior of the Canadian Children’s Aid Society and later in another about CPS in Arizona.  The painfully obvious fact is that we spend enormous sums of money on foster care.  In Canada it’s about $30 per day per child, although here it’s less than that unless the child has special needs.  But it’s simply impossible to believe that, in many cases, the money we spend on foster care couldn’t be better spent providing services to children and parents.

From what I can gather, this mother was in no way unfit or harmful to her son.  She didn’t beat him or deprive him of life’s necessities; she wasn’t a drug addict or a criminal.  She strikes me as a mother who was doing the best she could with a child who has a serious health condition.  So instead of tossing her aside and him into care, why not direct the money that is now going to a foster parent toward getting her help in understanding and addressing his obesity?  After all, someone’s going to have to do that eventually.

The tendency of child welfare workers to do something for the sake of showing they’re aware of a bad situation and being “proactive” is entirely misdirected here.  Foster care won’t help, but helping the mother see what the problem actually is and what to do about it can.  But apparently the caseworkers don’t have those other options to recommend.

And one other thing.

“A 218-pound 8-year-old is a time bomb,” a professor of bioethics conceded in an interview with The Plain Dealer.

“But the government cannot raise these children. A third of kids are fat. We aren’t going to move all of them to foster care. We can’t afford it and I’m not sure there are enough foster parents to do it.”

Good point.  Childhood obesity is an epidemic in this country, and foster care is a very costly way of not solving the problem.

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