Child protection obesity action highlights role of MLP

Recent news in Australia’s Age newspaper that VICTORIAN welfare authorities have begun using extreme obesity as a reason to support children being separated from their parents focusses attention on the tensions between rights, freedoms and the common good which often characterise public health debates.

Responding to the development, Associate Professor John Dixon, of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, is reported as saying:

”I would not want parents out there with overweight or obese children to in any way feel that it’s through their negligence that we have a growing obesity issue in children today,” Associate Professor Dixon said.

”That would be very wrong indeed … This is a community problem, an Australia-wide, a global problem that we’re not addressing very well at the moment.

”We shouldn’t be blaming the parents for our environment. The parents and the children who are obese are really victims of the environment.”

Navigating and engaging the tensions between habit and habitat is the work of medical-legal partnership. MLP routinely traverses the territory of  individual rights and freedoms, institutional reform and environmental change.

Although the child protection arena creates natural challenges for legal advocates who often rely on authority from a parent or guardian to act for a child, there is significant scope for MLP to contribute within this context. Parents and guardians can be supported to understand the health concerns facing their children and negotiate outcomes that can maximise the potential for achieving better health, while strengthening relationships with their children. Lawyers can be appointed guardians ad litem (a guardian appointed to represent the interests of the child in child protection litigation) to represent children directly, as is the case for Washington DCs MLP champion the Children’s Law Centre. Advocates can seek institutional change, in schools, health services and recreational facilities to focus on obesity awareness and prevention.

They can also engage in broad systemic change, like Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban super-size soft drinks. While such reforms seem obvious from a public health perspective, they predictably raise claims of rights violations as indicated by reportage by the Huffington Post of City Council Member Dan Halloran, a Republican from Queens, sayings Bloomberg’s stance on soda size challenged nothing less than “the principles on which our country was founded.”

It may seem odd that the Children’s Court is the final battle-ground for some of these issues, but the cases that pass through it put the competing principles into clear relief – what is our social tolerance for childhood obesity? Where will we draw the line when it comes to the health of our children? When do these concerns override other rights and interests? If the means to address individual problems lay beyond the control (or complete control) of parents and guardians, what environment should we create to improve the safety and well-being of our children?

Peter Noble

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