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Taking obese child from mom is wrong

Story highlights

  • A 200-pound boy who is 8 years old was taken away from his mother in Ohio
  • Authorities said the mother was failing to control her son's weight
  • Ruben Navarrette says taking the child away went too far
  • He says there are other ways to address problem short of breaking up a family

Is child obesity a form of child neglect?

Of course not. That's ridiculous. But, it seems, the ridiculous is now standard operating procedure in the upside down world of the Department of Children and Family Services of Cuyahoga County in Ohio. In a case making headlines around the country, the agency recently decided that a Cleveland third grader should be taken from his mother and placed in foster care.

Was this an instance of child abuse? Apparently not. Was it an urgent situation that required this local government entity to immediately intervene and take the drastic step of separating a family? It doesn't seem so.

In fact, county public defender Sam Amata told reporters that his office would challenge the removal because the boy was not in imminent danger.

Here's the alleged abuse: The 8-year-old boy weighed more than 200 pounds, and officials essentially claimed that his mother was to blame for not doing enough to help her son lose weight. So they went into the home and took the child away. Just like that.

Department spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the boy's condition constituted "a form of medical neglect."

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Hold on. Constituted to whom? Who made that determination? Was it a doctor or a social worker? The boy reportedly caught the attention of the agency when his mother took him to the hospital last year because he was having trouble breathing.

And, once someone determined that this was a case of neglect and not just a health issue, who made the subsequent life-altering decision to remove the child from his home and put him at tender mercies of a foster care system that is notoriously dysfunctional? The answer to that question isn't clear.

From the looks of it, this is precisely the kind of heavy-handed abuse for which social service agencies in communities across the country have become infamous over the past 20 years. Many people claim that child protective services agencies often abuse their authority and act hastily, without respect for families or what's best for the child. Others defend the agencies, and claim that it's better they err on the side of caution when dealing with the safety of children.

Of course, if there were genuine abuse, then social workers should intervene. So should law enforcement. But that's not what we're talking about here. Madigan told the newspaper that her office had worked with the boy's mother for over a year before deciding to remove him. That's more than enough time to have detected any abuse, had there been any to detect.

The agency claims that the boy's weight gain stemmed from his home environment, and that his mother was not following doctor's orders. The mother says otherwise.

Undoubtedly there is something wrong here. The boy's condition isn't normal.

And, at the same time, child obesity is a growing problem in this country, fueled as much by inactivity as it is by an unhealthy diet. Kids spend too much time indoors watching television or fiddling with video games when they should be outdoors exercising, running and playing.

But since when is a parent totally to blame when a child weighs too much -- or perhaps, in the case of a teenager with an eating disorder, doesn't weigh enough? The issue is more complicated than that.

The boy's mother told the Plain Dealer, "They are trying to make it seem like I am unfit, like I don't love my child. Of course I love him. Of course I want him to lose weight. It's a lifestyle change, and they are trying to make it seem like I am not embracing that. It is very hard, but I am trying."

The people who run these social service agencies always claim that they're acting in the best interests of the child. Yet, in this case, that could be a tough sell. In the absence of actual abuse, taking a child away from his mother and placing him in foster care is not in anyone's best interests -- not the child, not the mother and not the rest of society which will have to deal with the emotional fallout for years to come.

What will become of this child? What kind of person will he grow up to be? Will he be angry and bitter, and how will he express those feelings?

No matter what is causing the boy's weight gain, the problem could get worse and not better with the stress that the agency is putting him through. The emotional effect on the boy is something at which lawyers for the mother are looking as they fight to get the boy back home.

Others say that county officials overreacted in seizing the boy, and now they're overreaching in trying to justify their actions.

"I think we would concede that some intervention is appropriate," said Amata. "But what risk became imminent? When did it become an immediate problem?"

This boy needs help, and so does the mother. But they also need each other, and a government agency shouldn't be standing between them. The county social workers may not be able to help this child overcome his weight problem. But they can make it easier for others to help him by doing the right thing and immediately reuniting this family.