the HAES files: there’s no place like home — unless you’re a fat kid

by Health At Every Size® Blog

interview by Jeanette DePatie (the Fat Chick), MA, ACE

An eight-year-old Cleveland Heights boy was removed from his family’s custody and placed in foster care.  The boy weighs over 200 pounds, and county health workers apparently removed him from his family over concerns that his mother wasn’t doing enough to help him lose weight.

 How does taking a fat kid away from his parents make him any healthier?  Is there data that shows that when you are removed from your family, your home, you lose weight? Of course not.

 Remember the 2001 case of Anamarie Regino, in Albuquerque, N.M.? She was removed from her home at age 4 because she was considered dangerously overweight.  She was put on a medically-supervised, highly restrictive diet and still gained weight.  After a month, they admitted they didn’t understand why she was gaining weight and sent her back home to her parents.  It was later determined Anamarie had a genetic condition that explained her weight gain.  So Sorry!  Our bad!  Other than traumatizing an entire family, what exactly was accomplished there?

 I am sure authorities will say they are acting out of concern for the child’s wellbeing.  But what about a concern about the emotional scars borne by fat children who are removed from their homes?  Scars that leading size acceptance expert and author Cheri Erdman, Ed.D., remembers all too well.  Erdman speaks eloquently about size acceptance in her two books: Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body and Live Large: Affirmations for Living the Life You Want in the Body You Already Have.

 When I was six years old, my kindergarten teacher knew two things about me—I had a high I.Q. and I was fat.  The teacher and school social worker called in my parents and told them they thought I would be better off if I were thinner. They suggested I be sent to a Fresh Air camp to lose weight and my family agreed.

Erdman spent the next 13.5 months living away from her family at the camp.  Her parents were allowed to visit on Friday nights.  She was not allowed to see her brother or to go home—even for her birthday or for Christmas.  Remember, it was for her own good.

I was only six, so I really didn’t understand the nuances of what had happened.  I was convinced that I had done something very, very wrong to cause them to take me away from my family.  I didn’t understand entirely what I had done wrong, but I knew that my body was bad and that I couldn’t go home until my body was good.

Having a good body meant losing about 30 pounds.  Naturally she regained the 30 pounds and more shortly after returning home from the camp.  This set the stage for an unhealthy mix of body hatred, yo-yo dieting, resentment, shame and regret in the years ahead.

 Over the year and a half after I came home, I regained all the weight, and it really upset my Mom.  She was upset with me for not keeping the weight off and I imagine she was upset with herself for sending me away, regretting her decision.  And I was upset with her for constantly obsessing about my weight and what I ate.  It was a hurtful and confusing time for me and it created this very negative dynamic with me, my mom and food.

 Removing a fat kid from the home doesn’t just hurt the fat child, it damages the entire family. 

 After I came home, we didn’t talk about it for years.  When I finally talked to my Dad, he told me that their Friday visits to Fresh Air camp was part of a weekly ritual of pain.  My Mom would start crying on Wednesday and Thursday, and then cry all day Friday anticipating the visit.  After the visit she’d cry all night Friday and into Saturday.  By Sunday they would have a little peace at least until the whole thing started over the following Wednesday.  My Mom and I never talk about it, even to this day.  My brother was only four when this happened, and what did he learn?  He learned that if you were fat they send you away.

Erdman willingly shares her story with us out of a hope that it will help people understand the deep trauma and ultimate futility that comes from taking kids out of their family environment simply because they are fat.

I went through all of that, and my family went through all of that, for no reason.  I didn’t keep the weight off and decades later, I’m still fat.  And it was so unnecessary!  If we had known about HAESSM and simply followed a common-sense, Health At Every Size® approach, we could have avoided the whole mess.

 We don’t know all the details about this specific Cleveland Heights case, and we may never know. But this case has drawn national attention to a very important question.  We aren’t removing kids from homes where family members smoke.  We aren’t removing kids from families that don’t exercise.  And there’s no evidence that fat kids removed from their homes become thinner or healthier in the long term.  So is removing a fat child from her home about better health for that child?  Or is it really about our own prejudices towards fat people?

 For ASDAH recommended resources on working with children and weight visit ASDAH’s resources.

About Cheri Erdman, Ed.D.

Cheri K. Erdman, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She is the author of “Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body” and “Live Large!” and was an early activist for size-acceptance. Dr. Erdman currently lives in Florida with her husband where she practices as a Celebrant, officiating weddings and other life-cycle ceremonies. She is a mixed media artist and a volunteer for several non-profit organizations.

16 Comments to “the HAES files: there’s no place like home — unless you’re a fat kid”

  1. this saddened me so much and then I thought “are there still things like fat camps?” and lo and behold a short google search later … there is and I was even sadder.

    HAES will change this world for the better.

  2. It’s almost tragic that the fat phobic people don’t realize that their bigotry only exposes their ignorance. The same sort of comments were once made when Native American and Aboriginal children were taken from their homes. People finally realized what was going on, stopped the bigoted idiots from tearing families apart and destroying lives, and the people responsible went down in history as villains. The same will happen in this situation. People will realize that fat is just another part of the diversity on this planet and not some valid reason for them to irrationally hate, It’s just sad that we can’t get it through the bigots heads that prejudice IS WRONG for any reason and not have to keep going down the list and explaining it with each and every thing about a person that can possibly be categorized as different.

    I know I’m wasting my time trying to reason with the dead air between the ears of you bigots, but what you need to understand is that the only thing you can tell about a person when you look at them is what your preconceived notions and prejudices are about what you see. Most people figured this out a very long time ago and it is high time you learn.

    • Dave – has it ever occurred to you that some of us were fat children and therefore might speak from experience when we talk about what doesn’t help a fat child? Sure, I was not removed from my family and “only” put on diets from an early age. But guess what – even that was enough to convince me that something was inherently wrong with me.
      I am not arguing it is healthy for a child to weight 200lbs, but that does not make it reasonable to remove the child from his family. Children’s and adults’ weight is determined by many factors. Some kids are underweight because their parents don’t feed them enough (and this is pretty much the only time when weight should be a factor in removing a kid from his or her family in my opinion – except if there are families out there who truly overfeed their children AGAINST THEIR WILL which I very much doubt simply because it is really hard to do). Some kids are underweight or overweight because of eating disorders – in that case the family needs help, but not in the form of removing the child. Some kids are underweight or overweight due to illnesses or medications that affect appetite and/or metabolism. And for some kids the “cause” of their weight can never be determined. Saying that it is reasonable to remove a fat kid – even a very, very fat kid – from his family to protect his “health” totally misses the complexity of the situation and inflicts further harm on the child.

  3. I’m saddened that people like the first two commenters exist. Anyone who has children knows two things – it’s very difficult to get them to eat something they don’t want to eat, and it’s heart rending to deny your child food. This poor mother is more than likely not force feeding her child anything, and it’s also more than likely there is some other reason why his weight is so out of the ordinary for his age. The ignorance of his doctors and the CPS workers is astonishing. I’m sure those two posters have things about them that might seem offensive to others, besides their uncharitable and cruel attitudes. I hope no one ever treats them with the same contempt as they’ve shown here for an innocent child.

  4. I am so happy that DePatie reprinted Dr. Erdman’s writing about her childhood. I have seen her present a slide show about it years ago…if you see pictures of her at the age she was sent away, you will conclude that she wasn’t very fat at all.

    People who post negative comments on blogs about fat people serve to illustrate what we are up against, every day of our lives.

    The truth is, people come in all shapes and sizes. But it is very profitable for the diet and fashion industries to suppress that truth.

  5. I hope that those who advocate foster care for children who are fat are willing to; 1) pay the astronomical taxes that would be required to support the foster care system in enacting this type of policy, 2) address the racial and social class disparities associated with BMI, 3) fund research to study the long term effects of this policy to determine if removal results in permanent weight loss, 4) support social workers and court officers who will be asked to enact this policy with the funding and the tools to monitor parental behavioral compliance with medical recommendations, as behavioral compliance cannot be measured by weight, only by scientific observation, and 5) demonstrate the same passion and willingness to speak out for the 400,000 children currently in the US foster care system due to physical and sexual abuse and severe neglect and the 700,000 children a year who experience child maltreatment.

    There is no scientific evidence to suggest that removing fat children from the home would result in any benefit to the child or to society. It would be a colossal waste of resources and would cause irreparable damage to children and families.

    Please – Harness your passion, your outrage and your resources to tackle a serious social problem with evidenced based interventions that are less likely to cause harm.

  6. To suggest an 8 year old has a choice and wants or is just genetically supposed to be 150% body fat is RIDICULOUS.

    And who here suggested that this boys weight is simply due to healthy genetic variation? There probably is an underlying medical issue here, but it most likely isn’t simply “he is fed too much”.

  7. If the child was removed from the home for neglect (due to improper feeding practices), then the reason for removal is “child neglect.” However, authorities should not use weight to determine this type of neglect. Skinny kids can also be home alone, for example, drinking soda all day, filling up on chips and cookies, and playing video games. Is this ok because their bodies are genetically different that a child who stores energy more efficiently?

    There are real metabolic and congenital reasons (such as hypothyroidism, Prader-Willi Syndrome) why children may be gaining large amounts of weight. Past dieting attempts can also lead to excessive weight regain, especially for a child whose parents have been encouraged by medical professionals to restrict their intake. Food restriction, at any age, is perceived as a threat to survival, and is thus met with increased hunger and desire for food.

    We don’t know the facts of this case, as they are confidential. It’s harmful to make assumptions about the child and the dynamics within his family. Perhaps he has suffered from abuse and neglect (not related to his weight) and it is good that he is now in foster care. But it could also be true that he was taken from his home because of his weight alone.

    As a dietitian who specializes in family feeding dynamics and eating disorder recovery, I am concerned that this potential exists. I have seen the effects of dieting all too often, as I once was part of the problem, counseling families with strategies to help children “grow into their weight” (restrict their intake); I now see the harm with that approach.

    Health at Every Size is just as simple as it sounds: promoting health, not neglecting health, for individuals of all shapes, sizes, and at every age.

    It’s interesting that at least one person assumes that the compassionate posts must have been written by fat people in defense of themselves. I personally thought this blog was wonderful.

  8. I would propose to walk a middle path between two extremes. One extreme says there are all different shapes and sizes and the trauma of removing a child from his home is worse than any physical remedy that might ensue. The other extreme says it’s good to remove him from his home because whatever the parents are doing (or not doing) has contributed to a child being severely overweight which compromises his health.

    There is so much we just don’t know here. For example, Dave notes a case in the UK that is somewhat similar to this case. In the UK, the authorities seem to have done everything they could to work WITH the family, up to and including having someone in the home during mealtimes to monitor probably both the quantity and quality of food served to the child. I hope I have that correct. And they worked with the family for over the course of a year plus, if the work with the family wasn’t helping the child, then there was a problem that perhaps a short-term placement might remedy. But no removal can ever be done in a vacuum.

    Cheri Erdman’s story is heartbreaking for a lot of reasons – one being the length of the “camp” – gee, I thought camp was for something like 8 to 12 WEEKS not 13 months! Maybe I don’t understand the meaning of the word camp. Another is not only the wrenching of an otherwise healthy child from her family, but the guilt of the parents, and sorrow of both sides. Nowhere in this awful tale is the one thing I would hope would be part of it – that someone helped Cheri’s parents LEARN how to prepare healthy food in appropriate portions for a child. Or that they helped the parents learn better ways to integrate exercise into the family, etc. etc. Maybe Cheri’s parents did everything right – it’s unclear from the story. I know that many of us can point to our parents’ eating habits that were better suited to living on a farm or doing heavy manual labor, to be a source of comfort and succor on the one hand, but also one of pain because that type of eating isn’t really suited for our more modern lives of less daily activity. We all have to adapt and here’s where HAES principles can help – they emphasize health at EVERY size.

    HAES principles emphasize health. Physical, emotional and mental health. This includes nutrition and exercise but also emphasizes that even with doing everything “right” one could still be larger than the norm. Where I think we differ is that people like Dave don’t believe a child could just be larger than the norm and be basically healthy, and HAES proponents would argue that he could. I’m in the middle on this one – I think it makes sense that when we’re talking bell curve of sizes and shapes, that whatever the norm and the standard deviation is, that within one or two standard deviations either side of the norm is probably fine. I’m not entirely sure what 200 pounds on an 8 year old constitutes because, for one thing, I don’t know how tall this kid is. Or what his bone structure is. In other words, he may actually not be quite as “fat” as the numbers would indicate. Then again, he may be. It’s one of those things that we just don’t know based on the article. Maybe somebody else knows all this.

    Which is my basic point – we don’t know what these parents have done or not done. We don’t know how far this has gone – what CPS and other authorities have tried or not tried with the parents. And we don’t know if this child has been completely medically checked out for any of those oh-so-rare conditions that may be pushing him to eating more than another child.

    Where I do differ from some of the HAES community is encompassed in an earlier comment about how difficult it is for a parent to say no to a child who wants more food. Well, when my son was young I said no an awful lot – to his wanting to eat candy before dinner, to eating a bag of chips instead of something else nutritious, and so on. That was my job as a parent – to provide him with healthy alternatives and to say no when he wanted what was quick and easy, depending on the circumstances. He’s an adult now and he’s 6 feet and 180 pounds, so I guess he learned a few things about what to eat when. And yes, of course, I said yes to lots of “goodies” like sweets and other stuff when it was appropriate. I tried to keep a balance so no food became too forbidden and I think I did okay on this score. I probably could have done a better job on exercise, but none of us gets it right entirely.

    As a therapist working with parents I do see a fair amount of lousy parenting that a good parenting class could help – I try and offer what I can as both a therapist and parent. Again, what’s the story with this boy in Cleveland? Are his parents otherwise good parents? What about their other children?

    I would be interested in knowing more of the circumstances and background and what the comprehensive plan is to help this FAMILY not just the child. Because the bottom line is this – even if he’s removed, he will eventually be returned to this home and it makes no sense to do a removal if the family is still dysfunctional around food and health when he comes home. My sense is that, in general, child welfare agencies are acutely aware of all this and try and work with the family unit, so I’m not sure what has broken down in this case. And if a HAES professional exists in the area, I would hope you would come to the foreground and offer to help the “powers that be” on behalf of this child and this family. To me, Cheri’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when everything breaks down. This child’s story doesn’t have to end this way, though. With some solid, open-minded help, this story could turn out differently and we all could learn from it. It could be truly healing.

  9. It is impossible to have 150% of a person be fat; one whole person (including lean mass) = 100%.

  10. Dave,
    It is true that the bottom line is calories in/calories out. However, hunger is a basic human need. It is very low on Maslow’s hierarcy of needs. When you are hungry, it is very hard to not eat. When your muscles are not getting the energy that they need, it is hard to be active. If I said that all you have to do to lose weight is stop breathing, could you do it? Well maybe for a minute or two perhaps a little longer? At some point you would start breathing no matter how much you wanted to lose weight. Hunger is no different. Can you stop eating for a month or two, sure…but long term it is nearly impossible to fight that basic human need.

    What I do with a calorie and what you do with a calorie could be very different. When one person eats 1800 calories and exercises 3 hours a day, they may gain weight and the next person eats 4000 calories a day and sits on the couch watching TV and does not gain weight. The body is a fabulous machine and does many things to either pinch every penny twice or waste calories to keep it’s set point. There are at least 50 genes we have found so far and more found each year that are related to insulin resistance and related obesity. We have identified many hormonal abnormalities related to obesity (these include insulin resistance, lack of leptin, leptin resistance, GLP-1, higher than normal ghrelin-a hunger hormone) There is a genetically leptin deficient mouse called the OB/OB mouse. In the same cage with the same access to food and exercise with other mice, the OB/OB mouse is overweight and unable to do much activity. When we give genetically leptin lacking mice leptin, and put them back into the same cage, they ear less, become more active and lose weight.

    We are just getting to the cusp of understanding why it is so hard to eat less and exercise more. But, what we do know is that healthy behavior, NOT weight is what leads to health. The child you mentioned that eats a poor diet and does not exercise and has a normal weight, will have more health issues than a child who DOES follow healthy behavior and exercise but happens to be overweight. The health at every size focus will predict health better than size. There was another article published in the American Heart Association’s journal just this month that says physical fitness trumps body weight in reducing death risks (available at http://circ.ahajournals.org ) There are MANY others.

    The sad part for me with this whole issue is that no where is it mentioned if the child that was taken away from his parents was following a healthy diet or exercising…..it is just assumed that because he is overweight the parents must be abusing him. You can not force a child to eat!!! Even if the child was eating poor food, if his metabolism was normal, he would stop eating and refuse more. When he is demanding more, it is hard for a parent to say no…even a foster parent. In other children who were taken away, the foster parents couldn’t do any better. It is very unfortunate that the child is 200# and it is VERY unfortunate that currently we do not have a good solution. If you read the research, at this point the best way to help is to follow healthy behavior even if it does not lead to weight loss. Focussing on the weight, just leads to frustration and make the situation worse not better.

    Which weight do you think an adoptive child matches…the biological (who they never met) or the adoptive??

    Laurie

  11. Take a kid out of the home young enough, and keep him/her away long enough, and s/he may be permanently impaired insofar as forming healthy adult relationships is concerned. This is not a decision that should be made without overwhelming proof of abuse or neglect.

  12. Some comments have been removed because they are not in compliance with our commenting policy. Please refer to side bar.

  13. Due to the removal of some inappropriate comments, my first comment looks as though I’m referring to comments made by Janie and Marie and I’m not – just wanted to clear that up. I agree with Janie and Marie.

  14. First, I hope that any latecomers to this discussion/comment period will realize that some people have commented on comments that have been removed due to a conflict with the posting policy, as determined by the moderator (not myself). I have no argument with this, but it could be puzzling to a newcomer who reads all the comments.

    Second, to the point of kids being forcibly removed from their home because of their weight, I seem to recall that this was a problem in the UK until the NHS (National Health Service) determined that most of the kids who had been removed were fat for genetic reasons, not under the control of the parents, and the policy of removal was thereafter discontinued. Can anyone reading this blog confirm this?

  15. such a wide complicated issue addressed with the usual myopic approaches. this article offers a sensitive and comprehensive look at this concern. thank you.

    i have tried to touch on this issue as well in http://lifeseedsnutrition.com/2011/07/22/muse-of-the-girl/

    sincerely, elyn

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