Obese Children’s Health: Job of Parents or Big Brother?

November 30, 2011

Political Theory


A young boy from Cleveland Ohio was recently taken from his mother and placed in foster care. What was the basis of his removal? The cause for his removal was the fact that the third grader weighed over two hundred pounds. The boy’s mother had previously taken him to the hospital for breathing problems where he was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and then placed into a weight loss program and under the observance of social workers. After claims were made that his weight problems were dangerous to his health and the result of medical neglect at the hands of his mother it was decided that she was not doing enough to help him and he was removed from the home.

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Was the state of Ohio within their rights to remove the third grader from his mother and place him in the care of a strange family? Their intentions may have been good, but it seems that they are exercising powers in a situation that may move out of the governmental sphere and into the personal sphere. We have discussed Tocqueville in class and how he advocated a separation of the state and civil society. I feel that this is a situation where the line between state and civil society may have been crossed.

Tocqueville believed that a division should exist between the power of the state and individual lives. This division allows for freedom to protect individuals’ choices being subject to governmental control in every facet of their lives. His view was that the government had duties to perform, but should not overreach their power to interfere with personal issues. Family relationships as well as health concerns, such as weight and how you take care of your body would fall under the individual sphere, and should be ruled by civil society, rather than by the state. The boy’s weight and how his mother dealt with it can be defined as issues that were within the realm of individual lives, and therefore this situation should be governed by personal choices in the public sphere, rather than be controlled by force in the sphere of the state.

On the other side of the issue there is the claim that removing the boy was in his best interest and it is the duty of government and society to help him. It could be argued that the boy’s removal was necessary because his health was in danger and his mother was not taking the actions necessary to help him. While I feel it is true that the government has some duty to help the child there are less extreme and less forceful ways than removing him from his home and his family.

I personally think that the boy should not have been removed from his home. Not only because it oversteps the boundaries of government involvement but also because it is not what best for the child. I feel for his sake that he should remain with his mother, who may not know how to help him with his weight issues, but is still a loving and caring guardian to him, rather than be moved to a foster family and be in a strange place where his emotions may lead to more weight problem. That being said I think that intervention in his weight issues and assistance in helping him become healthier is definitely called for. Tocqueville’s views about separation can be maintained, while the goal of aiding a boy in need can be achieved.

Do you feel the boy should have been removed from his mother? Is this too large of an expansion of government power, or is it a justified action in that the child’s safety was at risk and his health is the job of the government?

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20 Comments on “Obese Children’s Health: Job of Parents or Big Brother?”

  1. mcdonmeg Says:

    I thought this blog post was very interesting and it made me want to research further into can child obesity be a form of child abuse, because if so then I can understand governmental intervention. When exploring this topic, I cam across an article (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/29/health/la-he-childhood-obesity-custody-20110829) where it talks about how removing a child from their home should be the last alternative and the child has to be a high probability of serious imminent harm. In the article it states other alternatives before removing the child from their house which were: education, home health services, a nutritionist going to the home, even money to buy more healthful food. Therefore, in the case of the little boy in Cleveland, OH if the government had already done all the other alternatives and the boy was in serious danger of dying because of his obesity, then I can understand why the government intervened. However, if this was the first thing they did was just remove the child from his home, then I disagree with the government intervening. I think in any family, the child should stay with his or her parents at all costs, unless if the child is in serious danger.

  2. arielleshanker Says:

    I found this case to be an interesting take on Tocqueville’s distinction between civil society and the state. I agree with the original poster’s claim that nutritional choices would fall under civil society’s domain because it deals with associational life, in that you get to choose your own associations, whether it be with vegetables or junk food. Much like the debate over the right for government to interfere in issues of domestic abuse, the case of taking a child from his home due to practices going on inside the private sphere are highly contested. The function of civil society is not only for us to become differentiated from one another and to learn the value of collective action, Tocqueville argues, but also as a check on the state’s force. I believe that the government should not have intervened in this manner, but rather the state should have made the whole family participate in either appointments with a nutritionist or some other workshop scenario in which they could be taught tips for leading healthier lifestyles. This would have facilitated a better overall atmosphere for the child in order to amend his habits from the comfort of his own home and support network of family members.

  3. bonannianthony Says:

    This is an unbelievable post. I enjoyed reading it and found it extremely interesting. Obviously, it is horrible that the a third grader is three hundred pounds and has the countless health problems associated with obesity. However, I don’t think the kid should have been taken from his parents. This story correlates to the new school lunch policies. In these new policies the government is telling the kids what they can and can not eat. Obviously, we should try to eat healthy but we shouldn’t be forced to do so. Overall, I don’t think the state should have stepped in because it’s a hard argument to say the child was in serious and imminent danger. Hopefully, this story will make some citizens want to become healthier.

  4. antuck Says:

    I’ll admit that when I read that the first sentence, I thought you had made some sort of mistake. It seemed impossible that the state would actually remove a child, no matter how obese, from his parents just because he was overweight. But sure enough, after reading the link, it really seems like that is the case.

    Needless to say, I find myself completely agreeing with you. It seems like a gross infringement of rights to actually remove the boy from his parents and place him in a foster home just because he is overweight. Whether the government should be able to intervene at all to change a child’s weight would be a good question. But to actually take the child away from his parents because he is obese seems to me to completely justify the 1984 reference in your title.

    Not to mention that whether the officials involved realized it or not, seizing the child from his parents probably caused him far more harm than his weight did. (I think therein lies a good argument for limiting the power of the government: it doesn’t always know best.)

    Good use of Tocqueville, by the way. I, too, feel like a child’s weight belongs in the “civil” category and not the “state” category.

  5. nluongo Says:

    I think that there is another dimension to this story, which is that the state has the power to protect its citizens from each other. In this case, the state recognizes that the mother is harming her child, consciously or not, by allowing him to gain so much weight. Because the child is too young to properly understand what is happening to him and decide for himself, the state feels that it must intercede to prevent what seems to be heading towards a child’s untimely death. Although it may not be as obvious as a mother who is violently abusing her child, the same result will come about. This woman is seriously endangering the life of her child by not demonstrating a healthy lifestyle. In this case, I believe that the obligation of the state to protecting the well-being of a child trumps its obligation to stay removed from the private sphere of its citizens.

    That being said, I also agree that removing the child from its home should be the absolute last resort. There are plenty of other methods that should be tried to help both the mother to teach her son how to be healthy and the son to go along with these changes. A child being taken from taken from its mother, especially at that age, can have terrible consequences and the state should only do this if it has no other choice to save the life of the child.

  6. yonglee92 Says:

    I disagree with the government’s decision to intervene and take away the child from his mother because she was not neglecting him entirely. Rather, she was trying to address her son’s weight problem although she may have been unsuccessful. You say that the mother had taken her son to the hospital when he had breathing problems correct? Therefore she was not ignoring the health of her son. Granted, she may have ignored the consequences of overfeeding her child but with the intention of keeping him well fed. Thus the action of completely separating the son from his mother was far too extreme.

    Furthermore, the removal of the son from his mother may have had massive negative ramifications on his well being considering he was taken out of his original home. We cannot forget the magnitude of these circumstances since it is not noted whether or not he had a father or siblings. If he did indeed live with an entire family and he was torn away from that family, the psychological repercussions are could be potentially multiplied. By extension, the government would have been causing more harm to son because by taking him away from his family and placing him in a foster home, the boy would have suffered more than just from weight problems.

  7. jonkeren Says:

    I found this blog extremely interesting and thought you raised very interesting points. This is a very controversial issue and there are numerous arguments for and against both sides. It is very upsetting to hear about an adolescent boy who is already over 200 pounds. Although this child is partly to blame because he makes the final decision of what he eats, I mainly blame his mother for him being morbidly obese. She can control her sons diet and she obviously did a terrible job of controlling his eating habits if he weights more than the average full grown man by third grade. However; despite the fact that the mother has been doing a terrible job controlling her sons weight issues, I believe that the government does not have the right to take her child away from her. The mother is not intentionally trying to harm her son and therefore the government should not be allowed to act in the manner that they did.

  8. lkpeacock Says:

    I think something radical needed to be done to help the mother get his son’s weight back on track, especially because he had already been a part of a weight loss program. However, taking the son away from his mother might be more harmful in the end emotionally. Taking him a way could cause more damage to him; he might improve physically, but being taken away from a parent is extreme. Tocqueville’s view that the government should not intervene with personal lives applies to this situation. The government has no right to take him away. The article never mentioned supplying a nutritionist for the family, so they may not have taken all the steps to improve his health and keep him at home. Additionally, the article states, “A trial is set for the boy’s ninth birthday next month to determine whether his mother will regain custody.” This clearly shows that they are giving the mother a second chance. If officials have a sense that she could do a better job with helping her son, they should not take him away. That being said, people say you don’t appreciate what you have until it is gone. Maybe she was unaware of her neglect, and she will improve if she receives another chance, but how many chances does a mother deserve if she has completely neglected her child??

    I think the government had a right to do something to dramatize the importance of a child’s health. Hopefully, their actions do not further harm his emotional state later on in life. I think the state should have not taken him out of his home, but rather turned to less extreme options first.

  9. Rainyo Says:

    Yeah, I don’t think the boy should have been removed from his mother’s custody. Who is to say that the mother wasn’t doing enough to help her child? I’m sure after the doctor’s visit any caring mother would at least attempt to resolve the issues revolving around this particular child’s obesity problems. This is a tricky situation because, in reality, no one really knows all of the factors that played into this child’s obesity. The mother could have very well been neglectful of the child’s eating habits. Maybe she let him play video games and eat excessively. But what little kid doesn’t love to eat junk food and play video games? It is entirely possible that the issue lay in the genetic make-up of the child’s family history-some people are just genetically more predisposed to obesity, while others, not so much. This mother could have been letting the child have access to the same foods and extracurricular activities similar to other mothers out there-the only issue could be that this particular child’s genetic make-up led to the child being extremely overweight, while other mothers’ children remained skinny. It begs the question, can the custody of your child be put into jeopardy simply because your kid has a slow metabolism? Would a mother who’s kid has a fast metabolism be subjected to this loss of custody? I mean, the kid would definitely not show signs of being sickly as much as a kid who’s tipping the scales. It’s a tricky situation, in that, how many factors do child protective services factor in before making a decision so drastic?

  10. elotis Says:

    I think this is a very interesting post because it presents an unprecedented scenario that most of us would not even think of. Personally, I believe the government overstepped their boundaries in this case. I think this because I think of the issue of outlawing abortion. The government has no right to tell one what they should do with their body, and this case is no exception. If someone is overweight or their child is overweight, the government should not be allowed to dictate that or blame the parents for purposely allowing that. What if this child simply had a difficult time losing weight? Also, the government should not have the right to tell people how they should raise their children. Of course, the government should step in if there are cases of child abuse in terms of the parents physically harming the child or neglecting them. I do not think an overweight child constitutes as child abuse, however. Yes, the mother is without a doubt a poor parent for not promoting a healthier lifestyle in her child, but is that really any of the government’s business? I think this issue will continue to come up in the future, given the alarming rate at which our country, and the children of this country, are becoming more and more overweight. If our government wants to help the obesity epidemic, they should not be taking children away from their parents, they should be fighting this within their jurisdiction, like in Congress or from the White House. Maybe pizza should not be classified as a vegetable…

  11. euriosti Says:

    I find it sad to believe that our society has come to such standards. I know that we value freedom and liberty, but lacking discipline when it comes to health should be a concern. More than 20% of our country is obese. In fact, as of 2010, Colorado has the fewest percentage of obese adults with 21% obesity (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html). I have always thought health is the most important facet of life. I feel that the trend of increasing obesity displays society’s attitude. I think it says our society lacks discipline and ambition. If we can’t work hard enough to keep our bodies healthy, what does that say about our work ethic? I’m not sure that this case was handled correctly. I think that the state should have helped both the mother and child. If the mother and child could work together to reach a healthy lifestyle, then the family would have been able to stay together and the state could have helped to prevent future medical issues for the family. I think the state had good intentions in helping the child, but could have found a better solution.

  12. nasearc Says:

    I agree with Tocqueville in that there should be a division between government power and individual lives. So in this instance I would say that the government did step over the boundaries when they took the young boy away from his mother. However, I do think that the government was looking out for the best interest of the child. It is clear that the mom did not encourage or make the boy eat healthy, exercise or do any kind of physical activities. This woman neglected her responsibilities as a mother and did not properly take care of her child. However I do not think this is a good enough reason for the government to take her child. I think that the government should have intervened, but not in such a drastic way. I believe the government should have provided the mother with a detailed plan on how to stay healthy and a social worker to track the boy’s progress with his weight. If after a certain amount of time the boy had not lost a sufficient amount of weight then the government, in my opinion, would have a good enough reason to take the boy from the custody of the mother. If the government were to use this strategy the boy would not have been taken from his mother and he would have a plan of how to become healthy.

  13. emmaknev Says:

    I definitely believe that the government overstepped its boundaries in taking the boy away from his mother. Not only is that traumatic for both the child and the mother, but as you mentioned, it could easily cause the boy’s health problems to worsen. I agree that the government should not have acted the way they did, even though it was for good reason. I think that while the mother’s lack of attention to the issue is disturbing, the government should have acted in a different way to the problem at hand. Obviously, this is not a one case scenario, so perhaps making a special program for kids in this situation is a good idea. Perhaps giving the mother money to use in order to buy her son a gym membership and afford healthier food might have been a better idea. Regulating, of course, the way the money is spent to ensure it’s proper use. There are numerous alternatives to solving this problem, but putting a child in foster care because his parents made him too fat is not a legitimate reason to separate a family.

  14. carweiss Says:

    This article raises many interesting points. Firstly, while I don’t believe the government should have removed the child, it is truly difficult for us judge the situation. We had no idea if the mother was truly a negligent caregiver or if she loved her son and wanted the best for him. I don’t think the government can make the decision as to whether the son will be better off without the mother unless they did a careful evaluation of his living situation. If in fact the mother didn’t really care what her son was putting into his body and wasn’t really doing much to help him, then the government has every right to remove him out of protection for its people. However, if they were to find the exact opposite, that the mother was doing all she could but to avail, the government completely overstepped their boundaries as an institution. Although the mother has to be partly blamed as she is one who is supposed to be in charge of her child’s health, it is unclear as to whether the son will benefit from the absence of a possibly loving and encouraging parent.

  15. Austin Telling Says:

    I oppose this from two angles: One being that the government overreached in this situation, and the other being that this could do more harm than good for the child. Government should only be able to interfere when a child is in direct and immediate harm, and that this harm is malicious in nature. It’s obvious the mother isn’t trying to cause her child harm, and thus the taking of her child is unwarranted.

    Secondly, as some have mentioned in comments, this could actually be more detrimental to the child, both physically and mentally. Weight gain is known to be tied to stress, and what is more stressful than being forced away from your own mother and placed into a strange new home with a “new family”? In addition to the physical effects, one can only imagine the toll this kind of trauma could take on a young child’s mind.

    It’s a sad situation, but government intervention should not be an option in this case.

  16. pbaumhart Says:

    First off allow me to say that this is a very interesting post. The issues brought up here can be looked at from many different angles which allows it to be an extremely engaging argument.

    Although I am ultimately against what the Ohio state government did, they were acting in the best interests of the child. This is an example of an extreme situation where a child’s safety and health was legitimately in danger. The mother is not to blame, but nevertheless it was in the child’s best interests to be removed from that household. If he was allowed to stay under his mother’s watch without any type of intervention from an outside source his physical health could have potentially gotten to a point of no return.

    Social services was in the right in this situation, they acknowledged this as a serious issue and took action to alleviate the threat and remove the child from the household. If they did not intervene then this child would have continued to live in this toxic situation.

  17. maddycaroline Says:

    The good intentions of the state of Ohio, were overshadowed by their actions. In this case, I do not think that it was right of the government to take the child from his home. I am sure that he is not the only severely obese child in the state of Ohio, let alone the United States. Obesity is one of the biggest health problems in the united states today, let alone the biggest among children, that kills about 300,000 people a year at a cost of $100 billion to the rest of the country. The worst part is that obesity is among the easiest medical conditions to treat, yet the number of cases seem to be increasing each year. While many think that it is always the parents fault for making their children fat, the issue is far more complicated than that. For many children, the reason they are obese is because their parents are the same way. Instead of taking these children away from their families, the government first needs to promote healthier habits for adults which will then be passed onto the children. Agreeing with the ideas of Tocqueville, childhood obesity is a personal issue that the government should try and help reduce in all children, not intervene in certain cases. I, personally, make good health a top priority in my life but for many families, especially those who have been most affected by the economic crisis, this is not the case. As I mentioned before, I think that instead of trying to make a point with one family, the state of Ohio should’ve chosen a different (more widespread) way to deal with the problem of childhood obesity. As I have others write, i also agree with the fact that while it could have been partially the mother’s fault for not monitoring her son’s weight, she shouldn’t have to suffer for her wrongdoings because her child is not the only one dealing with this problem.

  18. weinben Says:

    Obesity is the most epidemic health problem facing children in America today. Over fifty per cent of kids under 18 years old are overweight to a degree whereas it will directly impede their future well being, with many being so overweight they will develop diabetes, cardiac and respiratory issues, and a guaranteed decrease in life expectancy. There are many fingers to point at the cause of this social plague, with many accusing the accessibility of unhealthy fast food and the lack of health education being the primary culprits. However, many people fail to blame the older generations for failing to provide an example on how to be a healthy individual. In this specific case, many cry out that the state of Ohio was mistaken to remove the third grader from his mother and home because of his obesity. However, how did the child become so fat in the first place? The only source can ultimately be from his parents failing to provide proper nutrition and being unable to step in and prevent him from gaining even more weight as he got older. It seems his mother did too little, too late, and as a result, was proven to be an inadequate guardian. It is disturbing, yes, that the young boy was removed as he was and placed under custody of another family, but at the same time the mother clearly was unable to prevent her son from acquiring hugely detrimental health issues which will be with him for his whole life.

  19. bbarocas Says:

    This story really amazes me. I still cannot get over the sheer fact that a boy was actually taken from his mother for being too obese. I do credit the state of Ohio for wanting to help and looking to serve in the boy’s best interest. However, that is about where I draw the line. As Tocqueville wrote, thee needs to be a separation between government power and individual life. This is a case of government power expanding well beyond where its reach should go. While the mother may have failed to prevent her son from becoming so obese, it is not like she was intentionally or hurtfully abusing him. To take him away and place him in a new, strange home, might not even help. The boy will have to make a huge adjustment and try to start his life over. This is going to be very tough for him to deal with as he tries to counteract his weight issues at the same time. I certainly do put some of the blame on the mother’s shoulders because how can you let a child get so obese? It is definitely neglectful as a parent and needs to be addressed. But sometimes it is not preventable, and even if it is you cannot fault the parent(s) enough to justify taking the kid away. The government should have tried to work something else out with the mother and fulfilled their duty to help the boy without taking him away. If they did that, not only would I agree with them more, but I think Tocqueville would as well.

  20. Brandon Baxter Says:

    I think the situation would have been more successful if they did more investigations on why the child was so obese, and why the mother was so reluctant in helping him. Was the child inactive and overeating because he was depressed in his family situation? Was the mom depressed, stressed, working multiple jobs, actually incapable of being a mother? If the social workers would have spent more time with the child and the mom trying to figure out exactly if there was a fundamental problem within their family environment I think the kid would have been better off. Being separated from your family in 3rd grade is not something I would wish on anyone, and I would try as hard as possible to find a way to prevent that. Obviously, if the mother WAS a danger to her child and completely unwilling to change I would agree that circumstances required an action like this. But I do not see anything that suggests this. I do not see anything that shows that the social workers tried to address problems outside of just the child’s obesity.

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