Thursday, July 14, 2011

Taking Away the Fat Kids Again

Well, the story that consistently strikes fear in the hearts of fat parents everywhere has resurfaced again:  Should parents lose custody of super obese kids?

OMFG.  There are actually people at the Journal of the American Medical Association who are promoting this crap?  Who really believe that very fat children should be traumatized by being taken away from otherwise loving parents, simply because of weight?  Who really believe that foster care ─ where many children are abused and mistreated ─ is going to be a better environment for these children?

Here we go again, blaming the parents for their children's obesity.  Because, you know, no child could ever be that fat without their mothers actively force-feeding them deep-fried cupcakes, ice-cream IVs, and chocolate-covered french fries.*

This just ties into the popular notion that obesity is only ever about gluttony and sloth, that fat children only become that way because their parents' bad habits, and that if very fat children are just given proper nutrition they will become a "normal" weight and maintain it seamlessly for the rest of their lives.  That putting these children in a controlled environment and giving their parents nutritional lectures is going to fix everything (and won't make things worse).

In the fat-acceptance community, we've been fighting this battle for SO many years, because authorities have been periodically taking fat children away from their parents and into enforced Fat Camp Foster Care for a long time.  This is certainly no new trend; I have been in NAAFA for years and can remember cases like this going back quite a while. 

Like with most diets, the "super obese" kids in foster care lose some weight at first.....but does the program result in lasting weight loss or "normalized" bodyweights?  Not usually. But because some weight is lost for a while, the doctors and social workers and foster care system can tell themselves it worked.  Then the parents get the kid back, the kid regains the weight because that is what happens after most diets, and the parents can again be blamed for the weight.  What a vicious circle for those poor parents!  And for that poor child.

But what's really going on in these situations?  Is it always a case of ignorant, negligent, or just plain gluttonous parents feeding their children into the grave?  Or might there be more at work here? 

Even the experts who question taking away fat kids are caught up in the usual arguments; they just blame the obesogenic environment instead of directly blaming the parents:
University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan said he worries that the debate risks putting too much blame on parents. Obese children are victims of advertising, marketing, peer pressure and bullying — things a parent can't control, he said.
I'm glad this guy is speaking up for the parents and I do think an "obesogenic" environment is relevant to some degree, but I believe he's missing an even bigger point. 

What if there are other factors at work that doctors are missing because they are so focused on only the "personal responsibility" and "obesogenic environment" arguments?

I remember one case, quite a while ago, a Giant Toddler of Doom was publicized and much ado was made about the parents and how negligent they were to "let" their child get that fat.  But this child was later found to have a genetic condition that caused him to be so fat at such a young age.  Did this fact then get publicized?  NO. The media uproar was focused on the beginning of the story, but when they later discovered the medical condition that caused this child's fatness, this fact went conveniently unpublicized. I only heard about it via my involvement with NAAFA. How much trauma was done to this young child because the doctors did not look deeply enough into his condition early on? And how much damage was done on a societal level because the media did not properly follow up on the story?

This is what I suspect in the cases of many of these "super obese" kids.  How does a child get to be 400 lbs. without something being wrong in their metabolism?  I just find it very hard to believe that a child could eat so much and move so little as to achieve that kind of weight in so little time without something being wrong.  Sure, some kids are more genetically susceptible to fatness than others, but that much?  Mightn't there be another factor at work?

Little children remarkably self-regulate their intake.  I find it very hard to believe that someone could overfeed a child to such a point of extreme fatness in so little time, even with "bad" habits like too much junk food and sweets. Remember, lots of other children in the world eat waaaaay too much junk food and sweets, yet do not become "super obese."  What makes these children so vulnerable to such fatness?

This is the problem around society's moral narratives around fatness in this country.  It lets care providers settle for the easy answers and keeps them from looking at the problem more deeply.

When doctors focus on the moral interpretations around fatness in children (the mother must be overfeeding her child, the child must be neglected or abused and is filling its emotional needs through overeating), then medical personnel conveniently don't have to look any further for biological reasons for the child's fatness. 

No onerous searches for difficult-to-detect genetic diseases or metabolic variations that might be causing (or adding to) such extreme adiposity.  Just blame it on the parents, take away the child, and ta-dah, you're done.  No messy complicating details.  And it fits what authorities want to believe about fatness.

But how many of these children really lose weight permanently under these structures?  This latest news story is careful to document several cases where the children are taken away and magically lose weight with "proper" parenting and nutrition.  But as always, the question becomes.....what is the follow-up?  If you look at only a year or two of follow-up, many weight loss efforts look successful.  It's the longer-term look that reveals the weakness of a dieting or "lifestyle change" approach and the overall harm that usually follows such approaches.

And what is the cut-off of "too much" weight, when children need to be taken away?  Who decides this?  On what basis?  And how do you weigh the potential benefit of even temporary weight loss against the tremendous trauma of being taken away from your parents?

I believe that foster care decisions should be made on the basis of other factors and not weight as the primary factor.  If the child really is being neglected or abused, then yes, take him away.  If not, but the parents really are feeding him terribly unhealthy food choices, get them nutritional help and support.  If parents are completely unresponsive, refuse to feed the kids decent food, and really are promoting terribly unhealthy practices, then look more closely ─ that kind of attitude doesn't happen in a vacuum.  Undoubtedly there is neglect happening in other ways too, and foster care can be considered on a combination of several factors. 

But take away kids from otherwise loving and caring parents solely on the basis of fatness?  No F*cking Way.  That should be fought with every breath and every fiber in our beings.

Striking Fear in the Hearts of Fat Parents Everywhere

As you might guess, this story feels very personal to me, as I bet it does to every fat parent out there. Many of us already endure the condemnation of society for daring to have children at our size, and if those children also turn out to be fat (as genetically most will be prone to do), then we suffer from the condemnation of a society that assumes that therefore we must be making them fat. 

Many of us endure the shame and stigma of frequent weight loss propaganda and lectures from doctors, school nurses, and teachers.  We live with having every item in our shopping cart analyzed by friends and neighbors and grocery clerks, and our kids' school lunches critiqued by teachers and principals.  Some have to live with BMI report cards and well-meaning but stigmatizing "obesity" programs at school.

Some of us are afraid to let our kids watch even occasional TV because we know we'll be accused of "too much screen time" making them fat....despite all the other kids we know who watch far more TV and aren't fat at all.

Some of us feel pressured to make our kids enroll in sports teams or exercise classes to show that they're fat despite getting regular exercise; sometimes we encourage them to participate even when they don't want to so we can point to their activity level and say, see, they do get plenty of exercise!

When our children gain weight and get more rounded shortly before puberty, we live with the guilt that gets heaped on us for "letting" our children get even fatter, even though "puberty pudge" is a common and natural process for many kids. 

We constantly hear news stories that blame us as parents for every ounce of our children's weight and we endure the lectures from healthcare professionals and acquaintances about the supposed "bad" habits we're teaching our kids and how to "fix" them....based more on what they assume are our habits, rather than what our habits actually are.  And we're supposed to just shut up and take these lectures or risk being labeled "uncooperative" or "non-compliant" parents.

And deep down, many of us fear that, sooner or later, someone will suggest that our children should be taken from us and put in the Fat Gulag because obviously we are doing something "wrong."  And we fear fighting back from a HAES perspective because we are afraid of being labeled "non-compliant" and giving them even more reason for taking our children away. From the above article:
In a commentary in the medical journal BMJ last year, London pediatrician Dr. Russell Viner and colleagues said obesity was a factor in several child protection cases in Britain. They argued that child protection services should be considered if parents are neglectful or actively reject efforts to control an extremely obese child's weight.
My kids are nowhere even remotely near the size in these stories, yet my first reaction to this story was still a heart-clutching moment of long till they suggest something similar to me?  And if I fight back on a HAES basis, do I help or hurt my cause?

My eldest child looks pretty normal but qualifies as "overweight" (she wears a size 16); my second child is a very active, fit Scout and athlete but still has a little pudge around the waist; my youngest child is downright skinny (to the point of worrying about her lack of gain); and my third child is so round right now (just before puberty) that he would gain me at least a lecture and a "if he continues to gain weight" threat from some doctors.  All of them eat the same food and have exactly the same parents...but all four are on vastly different weight tracks despite similar genetics and upbringing.  How much control do we really have over our children's sizes?

I make a lot of effort to ensure that my children have plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy proteins, and exercise opportunities, but I try not to be too fascist about "bad" foods and make them the forbidden fruit kids long for, and I will not place my more-rounded children on diets in order to "normalize" their weights.  We strive for moderation and a reasonable approach, but I know it wouldn't be considered enough by the Jamie Olivers and Jillian Michaels of the world.  I screen my kids' healthcare professionals for that sort of nonsense, but what if I couldn't?  What kind of harassment and threats might I endure as a parent if I refused to put my third child on a reducing program?  Would they think I should lose custody of him?

In my saner moments, do I think it's likely that my children will be taken from me and placed in foster care because of such concerns?  My head says no because they are not even remotely near the size of the children in these stories ─ but my heart doesn't believe it.  My heart still clenches in fear every time I see one of these stories, wondering how long it will be till the cutoffs for taking away children drift lower and lower and even my children could be taken from me. 

And I wonder if the day will come when some asinine "authority" somewhere suggests we start taking away babies from fat mothers because obviously they can't be trusted to raise their children in a healthy environment.  Undoubtedly the motivations will be the best ─ to save those children from a lifetime of discrimination and supposed health issues ─ but oh my God, the trauma they will cause.

Remember, children have been taken "for their own good" from native and aboriginal peoples for a long time, and look at the havoc that wreaked on those societies.  Look at the terrible abuses many of those children suffered in the name of "improving" their lot.  Taking children away from their parents is a huge psychic wound and often has long-term personal and societal implications.

The horror stories I have heard (and seen) about some foster care situations make me terrified about what could happen to vulnerable children put into Fat Camp Foster Care "for their own good," and frankly, it makes me want to run and hide my children from the view of authorities. 

I've worked with children for many years and have seen some horrible cases of abuse. I know that sometimes children do need to be taken from their families and that many foster families do a wonderful job.....but I also know that even in those cases, such separation is often tremendously traumatic to the children.  And sadly, I also know that sometimes the place of "safety" is not always so safe, and occasionally even worse than what they came from. 

So the idea of taking fat children away from their parents absolutely HORRIFIES me, and it strikes tremendous fear in me as a fat parent.  And I bet every fat parent around the country is reacting similarly when they see that story.

Yes, we need to have some concern about children who are at such extreme weights so early in life because there can be accompanying health implications.  But is taking them away from their parents solely on the basis of weight the right fix?  I don't think so.

We must be careful that the "cure" is not more damaging than the original issue; we must not let our rights as fat parents be taken from us; we must protect our fat children from further damage by well-meaning but draconian measures; and we must stop letting society's moral narratives around fatness keep healthcare researchers from digging deeper into the mystery of these children's vulnerability to extreme weight gain. 

This story just appalls me on so many levels.

*Thanks to Meowser for that last colorful phrase.


Kimberly said...

Thank you for this post and for saying exactly what I felt as I read the article, but have been unable to put into words. I'm a supersize mom of 2, a 4 year old and a 7 week old. I feel great fear reading this article. I was an obese child as well, the only child out of three to be so. I know first hand that my parents did not make me so, and I am extremely saddened by this article and by the implications of such a policy. Thanks for your blog, it was wonderful to find a place of sanity during my last pregnancy.

Anonymous said...

I saw a family (coming out of the gym together no less) that totally made me think about this article. Mom and Dad maybe a smidge overweight but nothing to take notice of, one skinny kid, one slightly round kid, and one very fat kid. And yet, most likely, the parents were making the same effort on behalf of all three of those kids (family time at the gym, yo). So, what are they supposed to do? Lock that one kid in a cage and feed her carrots?

Cassandra said...

The words "Oh my Lord, stop with this stupid crap" came out of my mouth about this topic being discussed on TV exactly 1 second before I loaded my blog list and saw your post. HAH! And ice cream IV? In the summer heat? GIVE ME THIS NAO!

Meowser said...

I knew "chocolate-covered french fries" looked familiar. :-P

I take comfort in the fact that this will probably never come to pass, at least in the U.S., given how corset-tight state budgets are now. And wouldn't they have to dump all the fat foster parents too, since they "obviously" can't be trusted to slim kids down?

Mrs. Gamgee said...

You said so many things that I have been thinking over the last few days since this came up in the news again.

When I read the article on one of the online news sites, I was particularly struck by the story of one mom, who works two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads, and when she went to a doctor to find out what could be done for her obese son she was reported for neglect. Like that is going to help the situation even remotely.

As you said, there must be some sort of underlying metabolic issue for someone so young to be so big and if parents are afraid to take their children to the doctor for fear of being reported, then how will the children get the help they need?

Breezy said...

What is this World coming too? Now that they have to attack the overweight children in our society, is the world that "BORED"?! If they try to put this too Law, then they should also include the "skinny" kids that throw-up their food because they think that they are fat,and for all the "skinny" models in the world that are forced to eat nothing! just to stay on the job. Get REAL World! If you take the kids away,and you think that there is mental illness, abuse, etc. now, just wait, hopefully this wont pass (GOD HELP US) nobody would want to ever have children again, because of the fear of he/she gets fat they are gonna take them away! World grow up and leave the overweight problems to the parents, this is not the concern of others!
I agree with another that it maybe a genetic problem, that can't be cured and you have to live with the overweight problem, like I have all my life. That;s just the way it is. So Please Bury this topic and Leave the children alone!

Anonymous said...

I am fat and so is my husband. My oldest daughter is taller and thinner than average. My middle daughter is medically in the middle of the curve for height and weight, but she was an unbelievably round baby and toddler. Her dimples had dimples and her folds had folds. Her bottom was spherical. She finally lost her very last baby-fold, around her wrists, when she was four. Until then, her naturally round head, big belly, big bottom, and wrinkly foldy elephant arms and legs made her look (gasp, horror, whisper it like a dirty word) fat.

I am a middle-class white woman with college credits, so I never pinged on the radar of assorted aid organizations. But if I had been, say, Latina, and on WIC, my little girl might very well have been taken away from me because I was obviously stuffing her with candy (no) and French fries (she was soy intolerant and couldn't eat any) and making her fat.

At five, she is outgrowing her clothes week by week, VERTICALLY. Her face is still round, but I can see her ribs. She has done the NORMAL, NATURAL HUMAN THING and stretched upward after a period of filling out. And she is going to get round and foldy again because that is what human beings do as they grow up.

Word verification: inond. Our culture is inondated with pointless crap like this while kids all over the country are going to bed without enough food.

Jenny Islander

Anonymous said...

It really disturbs me at the amount of times you use the word FAT. How degrading from someone who is supposed to be helping us feel good.

Well-Rounded Mama said...

Well, Anonymous, you must not be very familiar with the principles of Health At Every Size (HAES) or Size Acceptance. You might want to read some of the links on the sidebars.

We feel that the terms "overweight" and "obese" are demeaning and inappropriate. "Overweight" defines us by arbitrary and unrealistic standards, and "obese" comes from the latin roots for overeating, which makes all kinds of assumptions about our habits that shouldn't be made.

And while other words like "plus-sized" and "rubenesque" and "voluptuous" can be cute and have their uses, in the end they are euphemisms and only so useful. Another term is needed, one that is not cutesy or a euphemism.

In the size acceptance movement, we have chosen to reclaim the word "fat" as a simple physical descriptor of size, not as an insult to one's moral character. Stripped of all the unkind associations it's been given, it becomes just an adjective, a description of size and weight, nothing more.

We see it as a word of empowerment. "Fat" is not a four-letter word, and it's time to take it back.

You can choose to use it or not, but it's the linguistic currency of the size-acceptance and HAES movements. I do use other terms on my blog for search engine optimization purposes, but "fat" IS my preferred term and should be divested of its negative status.

Anonymous said...

The state took my 3 girls once. I have a daughter who cannot get below a size 12. I have one who is a size 6-7. They come from the same home. The reason the girls were all taken; The baby was below average height and weight for her age. The doctor claimed he feared for the safety of all 3. A week later I got them all back after being in the 'care' of a lazy horrid woman named by my 2 older girls, Evil M. Two years later, the same doctor took another families children because the baby was below average in height and weight.

Dante said...

*insert exasperated sigh here* What is this world coming to? If people continue to do things like this base solely on assumptions, there might end up with a full-scale uprising of fat parents who have in truth done no wrong.