Column: Foster care fails to solve child obesity problem

By Kevin Moser

Childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic. Despite some improvements, the numbers are still high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of American children are obese. This is triple the rate from one generation ago. Experts have been coming up with new and different ways to fight childhood obesity for years.

One week ago David Ludwig, a Harvard professor, wrote an article with a shocking solution to the problem: Remove the obese children from their parents and place them in foster care. His recommendations set off a media and scientific wildfire. While some experts side with Ludwig, many do not. The opposition believes it is an unacceptable solution. And they are right — it’s downright reckless.

In many situations, foster care is the best option. Children are placed in foster care when they are subject to abuse or neglect. Incidents involving drugs and violence are a sure way to lose custody of a child. Another reason a child can be removed is due to undernourishment — a poor diet at a young age can cause a whole gambit of long lasting complications.

However, over nourishment can also cause serious health issues. According to the Mayo Clinic, childhood obesity affects the body and mind. The mental complications that can arise are low self-esteem, learning difficulties and depression. The physical problems include type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and sleeping disorders. Many of these can become life threatening.

It is for this reason that Ludwig, a pediatrics professor, made his recommendation. He argues that in extreme situations, obesity doesn’t just come down to poor parenting, but the environment can also be causing a problem. Ludwig got the idea a decade ago when he treated a 400-pound 12-year-old girl. Her parents had disabilities and were unable to control her. As such, the state placed the girl in foster care out of medical concern. A year later, she lost 130 pounds and her type 2 diabetes disappeared.

Unfortunately despite improvements, this girl remained in foster care. Ludwig said ideally the separations would be much shorter. He also recommends that separations be used as a last resort. He claimed that before intervening, the state should offer services such as counseling, financial assistance and parental training.

This solution may have proved beneficial in some cases, however it is still a reckless idea. Being separated from one’s parents is no walk in the park, and there are a number of emotional side effects that often result. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, these can become severe. Foster children often blame themselves and feel unwanted, insecure and helpless. This can be a stressful time for any child.

Another reason this is a backwards solution involves stress. According to WebMD, the immediate response to stress is a temporary loss of appetite. However, prolonged exposure can lead to an increase in appetite and weight gain. Furthermore, eating can become an easy activity to relieve stress.  This one-two-punch can have a direct effect on one’s waistline.

Ludwig says the separations should be short, but what happens when the children return to their parents? Healthy meals may have been available from the foster parents, but this all started at home. The real problem is not the child but rather the parents and the environment. It makes no sense to punish a child for something they were subject to.

Overall, removing a child is an unacceptable option. In rare cases, it may be necessary to save a life but it should not be overused. The solution should involve working with both the children and parents. The state should intervene to provide better nutrition and opportunities for exercise.  Sadly, times are tough. Government agencies will be tightening their belts in the years to come. I imagine most states will not be spending too much money to combat the issue. Hopefully, the seemingly simple solution of foster care never takes hold.

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