Hard to Swallow: Child Obesity and Parental Rights in the United Kingdom

by Aaron Gertler:

It’s a libertarian’s nightmare: government-appointed social workers forcing your family into public housing, making your children exercise, even standing in your new kitchen as you prepare food. And if your children fail to slim down, you lose them. In one instance, Scottish parents from the town of Dundee saw the four youngest of their seven children forcibly removed from their home after failing to comply with the government’s health standards. The children have been placed in foster homes and are barred from parental contact until they reach adulthood.

The Council’s decision wasn’t without precedent: the UK’s Local Government Association released a report in 2008 warning that child obesity could be seen as a sign of “parental neglect.” If a physician judges a child’s weight to be dangerously high—a standard that varies from patient to patient and doctor to doctor—that child might well be removed until he or she reaches a safer weight. This hasn’t happened often in the UK—perhaps a dozen cases in all—but each confiscation leads to contentious local, and in the Dundee case, national debate.

Child obesity has become a political problem in the UK. (Mike Gibbons/Spindrift)

While the Dundee City Council claimed to act “in the best interests of children,” the UK’s Daily Mail and other conservative media outlets roared their disapproval of this “chilling example of the power of the State.” This sensation often obscured the reality of the confiscations themselves. For example, although The Huffington Post reported a Manchester 5-year-old as “the youngest child to be taken from its parents due to obesity in Britain,” Amanda Amesbury, the Tameside Head of Looked-After Children and intimately involved in the Manchester case, disagreed with the Post’s description.

“There were other factors of neglect and abuse,” she said, “which in actual fact were of more relevance to decision-making than the child’s weight.” Moreover, Amesbury does not expect incidences of child removal to become more frequent. Although one in ten British schoolchildren is obese, independent authorities and government officials see foster care as a last resort.
Dr. Sandra Hassink, director of the Nemours Pediatric Obesity Initiative in Delaware’s AI DuPont Hospital for Children, points out that isolated cases such as the one of Dundee are part of a national trend. According to Hassink, obesity is a chronic health condition little different from asthma or gastrointestinal disorders: children with the requisite symptoms require constant care to keep their weight under control. Childhood obesity, which has doubled in the UK since 1995 to affect nearly 1 in 4 British children, is an epidemic, said Hassink: “And what is the rational response to an epidemic?”
Hassink’s answer, however, is surprising: though she accepts that foster care might be a solution in extreme cases, she criticizes the practice for precluding the use of education, a healthy food environment, and expert advice for families whose children are at risk. “What happened to Home Economics?” wondered Hassink, explaining that knowledge of how to shop for and cook healthy food will benefit parents as well as their children – who will in turn someday become parents.

Around the time of the British government’s 2007 Foresight Report, which projected 50% national obesity by 2050 at the current pace of change, a slew of programs went into effect to combat obesity in all sectors of national life—especially children. The Department of health created the organization Change4Life, which has restocked hundreds of convenience stores with fresher foods, especially fruits and vegetables. At ages four and ten, all public schoolchildren are weighed and measured, and the resulting BMI shared with parents who have the choice to find out more through the National Health Service. The Childhood National Obesity Support Team, now five years into its mission, handles interventions on a small-town level, visiting localities to advise them on health policy and, potentially, more forceful interventions. But crucially, nothing is mandatory in these new laws: people are still free to buy junk food without the pain of extra taxes, parents—with a few, Dundee-style exceptions—aren’t required to seek help for their obese children, and a crackdown on targeted food advertising to children hasn’t cut the time they spend watching television.

Though sedentary lifestyles, Mars Bars, and a lack of parental response all contribute to the UK’s difficulties, awareness of the causes will not be enough to drag Britain’s obesity rate back from the brink of disaster. Health and policy experts alike have begun to predict the end of the UK National Health Service in a tide of weight-related illnesses that overwhelm its budget and personnel. As long as the British government fails to enact any long-term solution, improving public health through taxation and mandates, parents deemed unfit for overfeeding will force local governments into controversial confiscation—but the chance that children might fall to heart disease before they reach the age of independence calls for drastic measures. A young body doesn’t respond to parental goodwill, but to how parents physically treat it. In today’s food culture, child abuse can be entirely unintentional, and until certain edible substances start to receive the same kind of attention as cigarettes in the 1970s, developed nations’ intentions will remain misguided.

Aaron Gertler ’15 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at aaron.gertler@yale.edu.