Morbidly obese children are being taken into care. But are their parents really to blame? Katie Glass meets the loving mums and dads desperate to help their children lose weight.
Marcus Dolton was born on the small side. He weighed 5lb 6oz. “He wasn’t always hungry as a baby,” his mother, Amanda, recalls, showing me a photograph of him as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, round-cheeked seven-month-old. When Marcus was three he was just “chubby”, Amanda says, showing me another picture, taken on his first day at nursery school dressed in a baggy new uniform. She finds one of Marcus at six. He has noticeably put on weight. Taken at his school sports day, he is wearing kit that’s a little too tight. By the time Marcus was eight, he was wearing 13-year-old’s clothes.
Marcus sits in the room next door on the computer. He is 12 years old and 13st. Three years ago Amanda went with Marcus to a paediatrician, who told her “because of his weight it was neglect”. Then social services became involved.
The World Health Organisation considers obesity one of the most serious public-health challenges of the 21st century. Obesity exposes individuals to a greater risk of heart disease, asthma, type-2 diabetes, cancer and strokes. It costs the NHS an estimated £4.2bn a year. In the UK, according to the latest figures, a third of 10- to 11-year-olds and more than a fifth of four- to five-year-olds are overweight or obese. By 2050, obesity is predicted to affect 25% of children.
So who, or what, is responsible for children’s weight issues? And what should be done?
In 2006, Sir Liam Donaldson, then chief medical officer, warned that social services may consider removing children with weight issues from their families. The first reported case came the following year: an eight-year-old girl from Cumbria was taken into care weighing 10st. There are no official figures on how many children have since been taken into care because of their weight. I sent freedom of information requests to 156 councils across the UK asking how many times, in the past three years, social services had taken a child into care or “intervened in some shape or form” because of the child’s weight. The majority of councils rejected the request, claiming it would take too long to establish. But eight councils identified up to 31 cases where they had intervened. In Redcar, one child placed on a care order to receive compulsory services at home was 19½ stone.
Amanda, a slim woman, sits in her kitchen in Selby cutting out and taping cardboard buses for her second son, Trey, who is 11. Four other children play somewhere in the house, including Marcus, who does not want to be involved in our chat. It is a tricky subject. Amanda whispers as she tells me how hurtful it was when social services described her son’s weight as neglect: “It makes you feel like it’s your own fault that your child is overweight, that it’s your failure as a parent.”
She points out that “neglect” is the word she heard used recently to describe an appalling case where a child was battered and killed. “In my eyes, neglect is when you’re not feeding the child, when you’re not listening to the child, when you’re not buying them clothes.” Is it neglect when a child is overfed?
On the shelf, under the window in Amanda’s kitchen window, is a row of cookery books. It includes Mary Berry’s Kitchen Favourites and another called Take One Veg. “We tried to be vegan,” Amanda explains.“With Marcus, we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried couscous …”
“Urgh,” interjects Trey, playing at our feet.
“… We’ve tried gluten-free bread, dairy-free ice cream — I wondered if cutting down his gluten and dairy intake would help.” Marcus drinks Diet Coke and bottled water. In the cupboard are “natural” sweets, a Weight Watchers tuna meal, sugar-free jam. “If you want things like that you’ve got to spend money,” Amanda says. “I am trying.”
She shows me pictures of a packed lunch she made him. In it is a salad shaped like a clown: a piece of cheese as the body, grated carrots for hair and a tomato for a head. Amanda looks up health advice on the internet, but the information is conflicting.
“Some people say you should have a low-fat diet, some people say you should eat high-fat.” To make things even more difficult, Trey is autistic and doesn’t like trying new food. Whatever she has tried, Marcus has carried on putting on weight.
Amanda discovered Marcus was sneaking to the kitchen between meals. He would fill a cup with cereal and creep to his room. “The worst is when you decide to go to the toilet — everything gets quiet and that’s when they’re in the kitchen,” Amanda sighs. She has started locking the fridge.
At school, it is impossible to know what Marcus is eating. “He can tell me he’s having a sandwich, but I don’t really know.” She’s stopped his pocket money, so he can’t buy sweets on the way home from school, but she can’t stop other children giving him theirs. Nor can she stop him being confronted with pizza, cake and sweets when he goes to birthday parties.
Amanda doesn’t want Marcus to feel like he’s being singled out. “He sees it as being punished because he’s overweight.” She admits she sometimes gives in and buys him sweets. For his birthday, they went to McDonald’s. She knows Marcus could do more exercise, but he is self-conscious in PE. She has tried getting him boxing lessons, an Xbox Kinect (a gaming console that encourages physical movement) and buying a cross trainer. “The other children were going on it,” she says.
Amanda thinks that Marcus comfort eats whenever Trey has a “meltdown” caused by his autism, during which Trey screams and hits himself. “He doesn’t like the noise and I’m not there for him because I’ve got to be there for Trey.” Although she has tried to explain the health implications of obesity to Marcus, Amanda doesn’t feel that a 12-year-old can fully understand them.
In Brighton, Jeanette Cowan tells a similar story about her daughter, Samantha Packham. “When she was 14, I told Sam that her weight could kill her. She looked right at me and said, ‘Mum, don’t exaggerate.’ ”
When Sam was born, she weighed only 5lb 4oz. “A very small baby,” Jeanette says fondly. But she had feeding issues. Unable to keep her bottles down, she lost so much weight that she was admitted to hospital. Doctors diagnosed a problem with her stomach lining and switched her to soya milk. At first, it was a blessing: Sam was putting on weight. “Until she got to about two,” says Jeanette. That was when Sam’s eating changed. “She was quite big. People would mistake her for a six-year-old.”
Jeanette and Malcolm, Sam’s dad, discussed her weight with doctors, who reassured them “it was puppy fat” and that “as Sam got more active, she’d lose it”. She did not lose it. By the time Sam was eight, Jeanette realised her weight was becoming an issue. “She was happy … but she wanted food all the time.”