Childhood Obesity in California Custody & Vistation Disputes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17%, or about 12.5 million, of the nation’s children and teens are obese. Since 1980, according to CDC statistics, obesity rates have nearly tripled.

Should parents of extremely obese children lose custody for not controlling their kids’ weight? An article by Dr. David Ludwig in the Journal of the American Medical Association answers in the affirmative, and joins ranks with others who believe the government should be allowed to intervene in extreme cases and that putting children in foster care may be better and more ethical than obesity surgery.

Roughly 2 million U.S. children are extremely obese and though most are not in any imminent danger, many have obesity-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, breathing difficulties and liver problems that could kill them by age 30. It is these kids for whom state intervention, including education, parent training, and temporary protective custody in the most extreme cases, should be considered, according to Dr. Ludwig.

Dr. Ludwig states that this is not to blame parents, but rather to act in the children’s best interest and get them help that for whatever reason their parents are unable to provide. Others argue that this debate blames parents when childhood obesity is more likely due to advertising, marketing, peer pressure, the suburban environment – things a parent cannot control.

As lamented by the eminent social critic, James Howard Kunstler, “Our towns have committed ritualized suicide in thrall to the WalMart God. Most Americans live in suburban habitats that are isolating, disaggregated, and neurologically punishing, and from which every last human quality unrelated to shopping convenience and personal hygiene has been expunged. We live in places where virtually no activity or service can be accessed without driving a car, and the (usually solo) journey past horrifying vistas of on-ramps and off-ramps offers no chance of a social encounter along the way. Our suburban environments have by definition destroyed the transition between the urban habitat and the rural hinterlands. In other words, we can’t walk out of town into the countryside anywhere. Our “homes,” as we have taken to calling mere mass-produced vinyl boxes at the prompting of the realtors, exist in settings leached of meaningful public space or connection to civic amenity, with all activity focused inward to the canned entertainments piped into giant receivers — where the children especially sprawl in masturbatory trances, fondling joysticks and keyboards, engorged on cheez doodles and taco chips.”

Maybe that is an extreme characterization, although I think not, but either way, there is no doubt that our children are becoming increasingly obese, and this debate provides much fodder for high-conflict divorcing parents and their hired gun litigators with accusations about their children’s weight and nutrition in an effort to convince judges that the other parent is inadequate.

Child custody and visitation battles have always been ugly. But now obesity is increasingly added to the mix of diatribes and aspersions cast from one parent to the other. The specifics vary. Sometimes it is a grossly overweight child and allegations that soft drinks and fast food comprise the child’s primary diet. Or perhaps, it is that the other parent is too obese to parent effectively.

Also, a few high profile news events have illuminated the obesity-and-custody issue. In 2009, a 555-pound, 14-year-old South Carolina boy was removed to foster care after his mother was arrested and charged with criminal neglect. The state’s Department of Social Services had determined that without state intervention, the boy was at risk of serious harm.

For judges in many states and in California, the question of custody turns on one issue: What is in the best interest of the child? The trend toward shared custody and child-support arrangements often turn on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each parent, so custody battles have become more contentious, since, unfortunately, it seems that people can always find another thing to fight over. How sad when it is their children.

To help judges, some states have added specific criteria to look at when considering the best interests of a child, such as to what degree is a child exercising and eating well. More fodder for the fight.

But parents in a Collaborative Divorce that includes a full team, divorce coaches and a child professional, can benefit from the child development advice and expertise to learn how to co-parent and communicate well and support each other in promoting the best possible physical and emotional health and well being of their children. So maybe it won’t change the physical environment articulated so well by JH Kunstler, but at least families can work together to hopefully, limit the toxic effects of that environment.

For more information about this or any other family law matter, please contact Lorna Jaynes by calling (510) 795-6304, or visit the website at

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