On my way home in the car tonight, I listened to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4.
Someone asked what the panel thought about a couple being arrested by the Police because their child was obese.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Teamarbeit

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Teamarbeit

Apparently the 11 year old boy concerned is 5 feet 1 inch in height and weighs in at 15 stone. Clearly obese by any standard.

So is allowing a child to get so over-weight a child protection issue?

Let’s ask the question another way…
Would you consider the willful actions of a parent to be acceptable if they directly caused the following:

  • Social isolation
  • Weight-based teasing and bullying 
  • The acquisition of type 2 diabetes (83% of children diagnosed are clinically obese)
  • Weakening of the heart (in one study 70% of obese children had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease)
  • A quadrupled chance of having hypertension in adulthood – (high cholesterol, abnormal glucose tolerance, high blood pressure) 
  • Asthma – obese children have a 40-50% increased risk of asthma
  • Mental health problems – obesity is linked to factors associated with later psycho-social risk: i.e.
    • eating disorders
    • low self-esteem
    • body dissatisfaction
    • low physical activity
  • Bone and muscular problems -including musculoskeletal pain and Blount’s disease (bowed legs due to excessive weight on the joints)

(Source: Public Health England)

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Two things strike me about this list:

  1. These issues clearly amount to the child being damaged – physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.
  2. They are avoidable.

The verdict…

In my view, IF the obesity of the child is a direct result of the actions of the parents (i.e. it is not a distinct medical condition), then the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. This is the threshold for commencement of child protection procedures.
If a child was harmed or put at risk in these or similar ways for others reasons (neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse), there would be little objection to this conclusion.
So why the hesitation about parents acting in such a way (by commission or by omission) when it comes to obesity?


Where I agreed with the panelists on Any Questions was that the involvement of the Police should be a very last resort. There are procedures in place to trigger investigations about the safety or otherwise of children at risk. These ought to be instituted as usual (see an example).
Bridges should be built to the family and support and advice offered to mediate the problem. For example, healthy eating advice for teenagers…
There is also the issue of, “How heavy is too heavy?”  Or, at what point, at what relative weight, would a child be deemed to be at risk and so merit official intervention?
This presents a complex set of issues that would need to be well thought through and be subject to clear medical advice based on the current research.
But where a child is put at risk, or suffers significant harm, as a direct result of parental actions, and where other efforts to advise and assist have been ignored, legal proceedings should follow. In my view.
Just as they would for any other of the abuse categories.

What do you think?…  

  • Do you think this case was handled correctly?
  • How does obesity compare with the other categories of abuse? (If at all…)

Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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