Earlier this fall, Cuyahoga County officials removed an obese boy from his Cleveland Heights home, citing “medical neglect” on the part of his mother. The 8-year-old weighed more than 200 pounds, more than three times than most kids at that age. The incident has fired up debate over the role of government in family issues. Ideastream’s Brian Bull has the story.
(Note: WCPN is not disclosing the names of the child or his mother, to protect the minor's privacy).
On October 19th, the boy was taken from his mother and placed into a foster home six miles away. The third-grade honor student is now attending a different school, and has reportedly been dealing with anxiety, dreams of dying, and wetting his bed.
Pat Rideout is the administrator for the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services. She says her department and medical experts had been working with the family for 20 months.
“The important thing to understand, is that the department is not interested in intervening in families with overweight children," says Rideout. "The thing that brought us into this case was the serious health concern about this child, not the mere fact that he was overweight. His doctors brought his case to our attention because he was in harm’s way in their opinion.”
This case first came to light in June of 2010, when the boy was brought into a hospital for chronic breathing problems. Seven years old at the time, the boy was diagnosed as morbidly obese. Case records say he has a special breathing device at night, to help his severe sleep apnea. Doctors say there’s no medical cause for the boy’s weight, and Rideout says he remains at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and respiratory problems. She says her department has tried to do nutritional training and exercise programs with the family, but there was not sufficient progress over time.
"So eventually the medical personnel counseling us, were of the opinion that he was in harms’ way.”
Case records obtained from Cuyahoga County include a case worker’s account that says the mother missed several appointments with department workers, including weigh-ins for her boy. His brother and friends had also been giving him snacks. After some weight loss, the boy regained it, and then some.
Neither the mother nor her lawyer has responded to WCPN for comment, but in interviews with the Plain Dealer newspaper, she asserts that she loves her son and is trying to help him lose weight. And she’s challenging the placement of her son in foster care.
The case has caught the attention of Stephen Latham, Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale.
“Serious obesity problems are likely to have social and emotional and physical origins, that if even if he’s in a very fine foster home, they won’t be very well-equipped to handle," says Latham. "And eventually he’s going to go home. What will happen then? How will problems that led him to become an overweight little boy, have been dealt with in the meantime?”
Latham also questions the county’s reasoning that the boy was a victim of “medical neglect.”
“He has sleep apnea, he was seeing a doctor about that. He’s got it under control, he’s wearing a medical device at night to help him. And therefore it’s not clear to me why he’s facing any imminent danger of the kind that normally justifies taking someone out of a home.”
But others disagree, including Jack Westman, professor emeritus of psychiatry, for the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health. He feels that in this specific instance, Cuyahoga County officials did the right thing.
“There’s no question that this is time when others have to step into family life," says Westman. "The morbid and even death-possible consequences of obesity of this nature are such that it clearly does constitute medical neglect. And if parents are unable to discharge their responsibility in this area, we really do need to turn to our protective services, to help the youngster.”
Patricia Rideout of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services says her staff is absolutely committed to reuniting the boy with his mother. However, there’s no known timeline yet as to when the boy will go home. The merits of keeping the boy in foster care or returning to his home will be debated in Cuyahoga County juvenile court in a trial scheduled for mid-December...on the boy's ninth birthday.