The Daily Mirror ran an interesting piece this week, as a result of Freedom of Information queries revealing that over the last five years, 74 children have been taken into care across the country for being too obese.
It is quite a balanced piece and has some interesting views within it – it is neither a hatchet job on parents who let their children get fat, nor on busybody professionals who interfere, but tries to look at both sides of the equation. It is probably the best article in a mainstream newspaper on child protection that I’ve read in a long while – recognising that these are difficult issues, hard choices and that there is no simple right answer either way.
From a strictly legal standpoint, it is worth remembering that a child can’t be removed from a parents care (other than for a very short period by the police) unless a Court is satisfied that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. Being a bit overweight (even quite a bit overweight) isn’t going to be enough for that. In fact, these numbers tell you that – given the number of media articles bemoaning how Britain’s children are out of shape and obese, that’s quite a small number over a five year period. [If the NHS stats are right, ten per cent of children are significantly overweight]
In order to get anywhere close to meeting the significant harm test, a child would have to be massively overweight AND there would need to be some medical evidence about the harm that this would be causing the child. (Mere common sense assertions that a child of eleven being sixteen stone is harmful won’t do – you need a medical opinion as to the damage that this is causing their health, their joints, their heart, their ability to participate in ordinary childhood life)
Even if a child does reach that level of obesity, the Court would still be carefully balancing the two types of harm in this case – that physical and medical harm that the obesity is causing against the emotional harm and trauma of removing a child from parents. (I think the Mirror article covers that very well). The Court would want to be thinking about whether there is anything else that can be done – better education, a dietician, stern warnings, therapy, putting the child on a prescribed diet – those are all things that would usually be tried before contemplating making an order to remove a child. It would very much be the last resort when anything else one could reasonably try hasn’t worked.
And of course, the removal into care isn’t a magic wand – it isn’t a magic solution that will solve the problem. For some of these overweight children, there’s an emotional or comfort component to their over-eating and it might be that being away from the parents makes them far more unhappy and far more likely to eat more. The article, and the statistics, can’t tell us how many of those children went home again after their time in care, or how many had their problems addressed / made worse.