Ohio social workers sparked a national controversy last fall when they placed an 8-year-old boy weighing more than 200 pounds in foster care until he slimmed down. The boy was returned to his mother in March after losing weight, and on Thursday, the family supervision was lifted.
But the controversy might not be over.
“The reality was he was never in immediate danger — he was overweight,” James Hardiman, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, told the Los Angeles Times. He represented the boy’s mother, who fought the action in court.
“I’m a little upset with the way the county handled this case and that it might set a precedent for other overweight kids to be removed from their homes,” Hardiman said.
Obesity as a custody issue first caught the public’s attention in July, when an obesity expert at Children’s Hospital Boston wrote an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. arguing that some parents should lose custody of their severely obese children.
“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors,” Dr. David Ludwig said in the editorial, which he co-wrote with Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
The editorial had been spurred, in part, by similar cases elsewhere. Soon, the issue became real in Ohio.
Social workers there had been alerted about the 8-year-old boy after his mother, concerned about his weight, registered him for a healthy eating program at a local hospital, Hardiman said. The mother was heavyset, but the boy had an older brother who was thin, making it unclear how he gained so much weight, Hardiman said.
The Cuyahoga County family services agency worked with the Cleveland Heights family for more than a year before the boy was removed from the home in October.
In December, the boy was placed with an uncle in Columbus. During the four months he was away from home, he lost about 50 pounds through exercise and healthy eating, according to an attorney appointed to act as the boy’s guardian in court.
“This was an unusual situation — no one was claiming the mother did anything abusive. Nobody was saying she was a bad mother,” that attorney, Cleveland-based lawyer John Lawson, told The Times.
Since the boy returned home in March, he’s gained back some weight, Lawson said, adding: “Hopefully, he’s stabilized.”
Social workers still plan to check on the boy and have offered nutritional and health counseling, he said.
“We’ve got a big brother involved as well now who can take him to the gym,” Lawson said. “A lot of community people came forward to help.”
But Hardiman said the county can’t take credit for mobilizing community assistance. It was the family and its lawyers who marshaled support from the YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the NAACP, which donated weights and a scale for the boy, who is African American.
Meanwhile, Hardiman said, the boy — an honor student — had to attend four schools this year as he moved from foster care to his uncle’s house and back home.
“There was no concern for his emotional stability,” Hardiman said. “It was just ‘lose weight, lose weight.’ ”
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