Council warning to families guilty of neglect

From The Times – Jill Sherman, Whitehall Editor

Grossly overweight children may be taken from their families and put into care if Britain’s obesity epidemic continues to escalate, council chiefs said yesterday.

The Local Government Association argued that parents who allowed their children to eat too much could be as guilty of neglect as those who did not feed their children at all.

The association said that until now there had been only a few cases when social services had intervened in obesity cases. But it gave warning that local councils may have to take action much more often and, if necessary, put obese children on “at risk” registers or take them into care. It called for new guidelines to be drawn up to help authorities deal with the issue.

There have been some reported cases where children under 10 have weighed up to 14st (89kg) and a three-year-old has weighed 10st – putting them at a high risk of diabetes and heart disease. Only last week a 15-year-old girl in Wales was told by doctors that she could “drop dead at any moment” after tipping the scales at 33st.

David Rogers, the Local Government Association’s public health spokesman, said that by 2012 an estimated million children would be obese and by 2025 about a quarter of all boys would be grossly overweight.

“Councils are increasingly having to consider taking action where parents are putting children’s health in real danger,” he said. “As the obesity epidemic grows, these tricky cases will keep on cropping up. Councils would step in to deal with an undernourished and neglected child, so should a case with a morbidly obese child be different? If parents consistently place their children at risk through bad diet and lack of exercise, is it right that a council should step in to keep the child’s health under review?”

“The nation’s expanding waistline threatens to have a devastating impact on our public services. It’s a huge issue for public health, but it also risks placing an unprecedented amount of pressure on council services.”

The association called for a national debate on how much local authorities should intervene in obesity cases. As a basic minimum, social services or health visitors should talk to the families involved, give them advice and show them how to provide healthy meals. “But in the worst cases [the children] would need to be put on ‘at risk’ registers or taken into care.”

Last year Cumbria County Council put an eight-year old girl into care as she was dangerously overweight.

Anne Ridgway, of Cumbria Primary Care Trust, said that it was extremely rare for a child to be put into care just because of their weight. “Even then the care proceedings may well have been instigated because of related problems rather than exclusively because of their weight,” she said. Extreme cases of obesity could become a child protection issue because obesity “can have very serious consequences for a child’s health and the parental behaviour that leads to childhood obesity can be a form of neglect”.

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Children who are dangerously overweight should be brought into hospital, where they can be given 24-hour care for several weeks or months. But their parents should have access to them.”

The Conservative Party said that taking children into care was a serious step. Andrew Landsley, the Shadow Health Secretary, said that in many cases “it would be better to help the parents provide better nutrition for their child rather than break up the family”.