Obesity is a huge problem in this country for children as well as adults. Between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese, defined as more than 20% over ideal weight, while morbidly obese means 50- 100% over ideal weight.
Recently a 200-pound 8-year-old was removed from his home and placed in foster care because the state claimed that his parents were not doing enough to control his weight. Normal weight for a child his age would be about 60 pounds. While rare, other morbidly obese children have been removed from their homes in the past. All of these cases have arisen as abuse and neglect cases in Juvenile Court, not as custody issues in divorce cases. However, all turned on the best interests of the child, the standard for all child custody decisions in Illinois.
Experts argue whether or not it truly is in the best interest of obese children to remove them from home. The issue is that generally, the entire family needs to revise its eating and exercise habits, not just the child. The child may learn better eating and exercise habits in another care situation, but the psychological harm of removing the child from home may damage the child emotionally. Removal is a last resort option in all cases in order to provide help that the parent(s) can’t provide. Prior to removal, other counseling and treatments were recommended or ordered, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, such interventions failed. The better solution would probably be to get the entire family a diet counselor and trainer to learn healthier habits.
In many divorce situations, the parents and children experience a lot of stress as well as depression. Stress and depression are known to disrupt a normal eating and exercise pattern. It is possible that an obesity problem could start or be aggravated because of a divorce. It would be better, if necessary, to seek professional guidance from a doctor, dietician or trainer to get help to reduce the child’s weight before making the child’s obesity a contested custody issue. But both parents would have to cooperate with the program, and that is where the trouble starts.
The factors considered by Illinois Courts in determining the best interests of a child are 1) the wishes of the child’s parents covering custody; 2) the wishes of the child; 3) the interaction of the child with parents, siblings or other persons who may significantly affect the child’s best interest; 4) the child’s adjustment to home, school and community; 5) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved; 6) physical violence or the threat of such violence; 7) ongoing or repeated abuse against the child or another person; 8) the willingness and ability of each parent to encourage and aid a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent; 9) whether one of the parents is a sex offender; and 10) terms of a parent’s military family-care plan.
If obesity of a child ever becomes an issue in an Illinois custody case, the most relevant factor would be the physical health of the child, although several others could also be applicable. So far, no cases have been reported in Illinois in which the obesity of a child was an issue. I believe the court could consider the issue if the child’s health was in danger, but neither parent nor their counsel would want to raise this issue frivolously.
The holidays are the time of year where we all tend to indulge, many New Year’s resolutions focus on losing weight and beginning an exercise program. In the spirit of good will and peace to all people, parents should cooperate to help children overcome what could turn out to be a lifelong eating problem. An unfit child does not necessarily mean that the parent is unfit, but parents who are doing what they can to aid the child’s fitness will be in a better position if obesity of the child ever becomes an issue.