By Gerri Elder
Our northern neighbors in Canada seem to have some of the same issues that we are dealing with in the United States. Sadly, it seems that childhood obesity rates are escalating in both places.
Parents and medical providers are already worried, but now it seems that child welfare authorities in Canada now want to weigh in and judge parenting abilities by girth measurements. The fitness to be an effective parent is now apparently being linked to physical fitness and weight issues.
Recently in Ontario, a child was taken away from its parents due to the obesity of the mother. The family court judge found that the obese mother was contributing to her child's weight gain and that she was also unconcerned about the child's medical requirements. Many of the details remain sealed in the file, however the court's main point was clearly made. The mother is too fat to be a good parent.
Another child custody dispute that has been winding its way through the family court system in Canada for nine years now was recently concluded with the court finding that 10-year-old twins should be in the care of their mother, although they are so overweight that they have spent most of their lives in intensive hospital-based obesity programs.
The nine-year child custody battle that centered on the lives of the obese twins focused greatly on which of the parents would be able to best keep the kids on a prescribed diet plan.
The parents in the case, Robert and Lisa, sparred in court over the custody of the children for years, each accusing the other of child abuse via food and poor eating habits. The case brought up interesting questions as to what degree childhood obesity could be considered to be a result of parental neglect.
According to an article in the National Post, during the child custody dispute Robert argued that Lisa was guilty of putting their children's lives in danger by continuing to overfeed them and by refusing to comply with prescribed nutritional regimes.
A renowned childhood obesity expert, Dr. Glenn Berall, chief of pediatrics at North York General Hospital, provided evidence in the case and described his role as an "advocate for the children." Berall urged the court to award physical custody to the parent who had demonstrated a willingness and ability to keep the children on the prescribed weight-management program. He also recommended that the court not allow the children to be in the care of a parent who would not reasonably comply with the prescribed diet program for the children.
Lisa's lawyer Elliot Birnboim said that this case marked the first instance in which the issue of childhood obesity was the pivotal issue in determining child custody.
In both Canada and the United States, adoption applications are now taking into consideration the obesity of the applicants. Last year in Kansas City, Gary Stocklaufer was considered by a judge to be an unfit adoptive parent because he was morbidly obese. Stocklaufer's application was denied due to health reasons and he was unable to adopt the child at that time. He has since had gastric bypass surgery and has reduced his weight from over 500 pounds to about 300 pounds. He was recently in front of the judge again and was awarded custody of the child.
With the obesity epidemic in the United States affecting both adults and children, it is likely only a matter of time before weight issues play a more dominant role in child custody battles. While family courts routinely make decisions regarding custody in many cases in which a parent or a child has a disability, obesity in itself is not a disability. The social stigma attached to obesity is certainly a reality, but weight issues alone do not necessarily denote an inability to be an effective parent. Family court judges will have a difficult challenge in determining exactly how weight issues and childhood obesity should affect child custody disputes.