A Story With No Good Answers

In Cleveland Heights, county workers have put an eight-year-old boy who weighs more than 200 pounds into foster care after concluding that the boy’s mother isn’t doing enough to control his weight.  The boy isn’t suffering from any medical conditions other than sleep apnea, but he is considered at risk of weight-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.  It’s the first time anyone in Ohio can recall a child being taken from his home purely because of a weight issue.

Childhood obesity is a problem in America — but when should the state intervene to deal with individual cases?  County workers say the boy’s weight is due to his environment and his mother’s failure to follow doctor’s orders; they consider the boy’s condition to be just another form of medical neglect.  The mother, and her lawyer, say the county overreached because the boy is in no immediate danger and the mother has been trying to control his weight.  They note that the boy is on the honor roll and participates in school activities, and add that removing a child from his home and family and putting him foster care can cause its own harms.

This case is an example of what can happen when less-than-perfect parenting and an activist government intersect.  I’m not in favor of officious government workers deciding what’s best for us, but I also question how an attentive parent could let a weight issue become so extreme.  If you conclude that the county acted correctly in this instance, where do you draw the line?  Could it have acted even sooner — when, say, the boy first tipped the scales at 175 pounds?  And if you think the county acted improperly, is there any point at which it should intervene short of the child developing medical problems that clearly are weight-related?

While we wrestle with these abstract issues of individual responsibility and government intrusion, however, I think of the kid at the center of this story.  It’s hard to envision an eight-year-old boy who weighs more than 200 pounds, and it’s even harder to imagine that boy having any kind of normal childhood — particularly now that he’s become the focal point of a much larger tug of war.