Prof pans taking obese kids from parents

In the wake of a Harvard researchers’ recommendation that parents of severely obese children lose custody of their kids, a New Brunswick child obesity specialist says it shouldn’t – and won’t – happen.

In the July 13 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, Lindsey Murtagh and David Ludwig wrote a commentary that urged action on the childhood obesity pandemic that is sweeping the continent. They argue that, in the same way that feeding a kid too little is considered neglect, so too should feeding them too much.

“In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable … because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” the article states.

“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors.”

But Gabriela Tymowski thinks it’s an extreme measure. She is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick and was the founding director of the university’s 2004 Learning Eating Activity Program, which worked with families and children who were dealing with obesity.

Tymowski said the suggestion reflects the growing concern that childhood obesity rates are not abating.

“I think a lot of people … are just unsure of what to do,” she said.

Murtagh and Ludwig – who Tymowski said are two of the world’s leading researchers on the subject – acknowledged the possible legal problems, genetic exceptions and controversial ethics tangled in the idea.

“Where would we send those kids?” Tymowski said.

When more than half of New Brunswick’s adult population is overweight, she doubts foster families would be better equipped than anyone else to care for a morbidly obese child.

In New Brunswick 34 per cent of children are overweight or obese, she said. In comparison, the Canadian average for overweight or obese kids is 26 per cent.

“And overweight kids become overweight adults,” Tymowski said.

Obesity is not only linked to depression and stigmatization, but it can also have real and significant impacts on the health care system.

Tymowski said obesity-related chronic health problems will bankrupt the province if something doesn’t change.

The article, which spawned a flurry of passionate debate within the American media, states that, if implemented, this measure would affect only severely obese children. That is to say kids with a body mass index at or beyond the 99th percentile.

Tymowski said some 60 families who were dealing with obese children participated the Learning Eating Activity Program, which was discontinued after five years of operation.

Of those, she said maybe one or two might have been classified as morbidly obese.

These individuals are largely invisible to society because they aren’t as mobile. While Tymowski can’t think of any Canadian cases in which a child was removed from a family, there have been a few extreme cases in the United States and the United Kingdom, she said.

But, even though it would affect a miniscule fraction of the population, Tymowski said that taking a child from their family isn’t the best way to tackle the problem.

There are social and economic factors to account for, among other considerations, she said.

“It’s far more complicated than we ever thought.”

Previously published July 29, 2011; Telegraph-Journal