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MD's View on Child Obesity and Custody Draws Strong Reactions

When Georgia courts look at the best interests of the child in child custody matters, they consider a number of factors that collectively influence their judgment. Those include identifying who is the primary caregiver; issues concerning parenting fitness; evidence of any abuse in the home; the preference of the child; where the parents live; opportunities for visitation; and a number of other matters.

A physician at the Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital in Boston is now asking that another factor be added to the mix in certain instances, namely this: Is the child extremely obese?

In fact, Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist, says that the "best interest" standard dictates removal of a child from a home entirely and the loss -- for as long as it takes -- of parental custody to a government entity on the ground that intervention is required for the sake of health and safety.

That opinion, voiced in the most recent Journal of the American Medical Association, has brought a firestorm of response, mostly critical.

Benjamin Downs, a Georgia school social worker who routinely sees and works with obese children, says that the suggestion is radical and "ridiculous."

Downs concedes that obesity causes many problems for a child in terms of health and, often, being bullied at school, but removing the child from a home is short-sighted and the wrong focus.

"If anything," he notes, "you need to teach parents how to provide a healthy and balanced diet for their children, not take them away."

Other experts on the subject -- such as Dr. Stephanie Walsh, the medical director of Child Wellness at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta -- concur with that. Walsh says the focus needs to be on "helping families struggling with weight issues," not on separating families.

"You're not talking about parents who don't care about their kids," she says. The answer is in awareness and education, she states.

Related Resource: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Atlantans say taking obese kids from parents is wrong" July 13, 2011

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