An 8-year-old Cleveland boy has just become the poster-child for a sad new nadir in the childhood obesity epidemic. The third grader, who weighs more than 200 pounds, was removed from his mother’s custody because of what officials have deemed medical neglect.

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

[The County] said that the child’s weight gain was caused by his environment and that the mother wasn’t following doctor’s orders — which she disputes.

“This child’s problem was so severe that we had to take custody,” [Mary Louise Madigan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Family Services] said. The agency worked with the mother for more than a year before asking Juvenile Court for custody of the child, she said.

Lawyers for the mother, a substitute elementary school teacher who is also taking vocational school classes, think the county has overreached in this case by arguing that medical conditions the boy is at risk for — but doesn’t yet have — pose an imminent danger to his health.”

The case is part of a new trend in child expert circles regarding childhood obesity. Earlier this year, two Harvard-affiliated child obesity experts wrote an attention-getting commentary in the Journal of American Medical Association suggesting that parents should be held more accountable.

“In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable, from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” Lindsey Murtagh and David Ludwig wrote.

Murtagh and Ludwig recognized that there are broader cultural and policy forces at play when it comes to the appalling state of childhood health in this country. There’s no need to provide the laundry lists here. We can all agree that American children’s freedom and activity have been curtailed significantly in recent decades and the overall quality of kids’ diets have plummeted.

There is plenty of blame to go around: For the planners who have created un-walkable communities, to the media scare-mongering that has us all terrified of abduction, to the litigious attitude that prevents adventurous play, to the junk food marketers, to the public policy juggernaut that allows foods like french fries to be served in lunch rooms.

That said, the obesity epidemic is an individual crisis as much as a nationwide one. It affects specific children, robbing them of youth and setting them up for a lifetime of health problems.

Railing against those larger forces won’t help this Cleveland boy. What’s the answer for him?

Government intervention can and should include support for parents. In the Cleveland case, officials had been offering some of that to the mother in the form of monitoring, advice and a hospital-based program. It was clearly not effective.

Removing a child from the custody of his parent or parents can cause its own lifelong problems as child expert Michaela L. Zajicek-Farber of Catholic University of America described in a previous post.

Childhood experts agree that it should be used as a last resort in cases of abuse and neglect.

When it comes to childhood obesity, should lack of adequate health oversight be considered severe neglect? If so, should custody be at stake?

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