LONDON – A mother who feared she might lose custody of her obese 8-year-old son unless he lost weight was allowed to keep the boy after striking a deal Tuesday with social workers to safeguard his welfare.
The case has set off a debate over child obesity and raised questions about whether genetics, junk food or bad parenting is to blame.
The boy who is a resident of Wallsend in northeastern England, weighs 218 pounds, four times the weight of a healthy child his age.
He and his mother, Nicola McKeown, 35, both attended a child protection meeting Tuesday with North Tyneside Council officials.
Before it began, McKeown, a single mother of two, said she hoped she would not lose custody of her son.
"I'm not too good, and I'm very nervous about the meeting. I'm hoping for the best," she said.
Afterward, the Local Safeguarding Children Board issued a statement saying it "was able to confirm that its hope and ambition is to enable this child to remain with his family. In order to move this matter forward, we have made a formal agreement with the family to safeguard and promote the child's welfare."
The agency provided no details about what the boy or his mother would have to do to fight his obesity.
The hearing was held under the Children Act, which places a duty on the local authority to conduct an inquiry if it has "reasonable cause to suspect that a child ... in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm."
The boy's case attracted national attention after his mother allowed an ITV News crew to film his day-to-day life for a month.
When he was 2 1/2, he was too heavy for his mother to pick him up, and at 5, he weighed more than 126 pounds, said The Journal, a regional newspaper. Now the boy, who is tall for his age at 5 feet, wears adult clothes and size eight shoes, the newspaper said.
Sky TV showed footage of his mother serving him meals of french fries, meat and buttered bread.
"He'll hover around the kitchen for food. He'll continually go in the fridge," McKeown said of her son. "I just keep telling him to get out of the fridge, wait until meal times and stuff. But at the end of the day, he was born hungry. He has always been hungry."
"Bacon. Mmmm... That's my favorite. Um ... chicken , steak, sausage," the boy told the camera.
Obesity is essentially caused by eating more calories than you burn. Obese people are sometimes thought to have lower metabolic rates than normal, meaning they need less food to maintain their weight.
Childhood obesity is of particular concern because it greatly increases the risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, skeletal disorders and strokes. Certain cancers are also associated with obesity, and obese children have a higher chance of premature death.
Several genetic conditions also contribute to obesity, such as Prader-Willis syndrome, a rare disease characterized by excessive appetite, problems in the central nervous system and a low IQ. Another rare genetic disease, Bradet-Biedl syndrome, can lead to problems such as vision loss, obesity and being born with extra fingers and toes.
Levels of obesity have tripled in England since 1980, according to the Food Standards Agency. More than half of women and about two-thirds of men are either overweight or obese, it said. Obesity causes about 18 million sick days and 30,000 deaths a year in England alone, the National Audit Office said.
It remained unclear whether doctors had determined whether diet and lifestyle were the only cause of his obesity.
Neville Rigby, a director at the International Association for the Study of Obesity in London, declined to discuss his case. But he said the public often stigmatizes overweight people without knowing their situation and assumes they are guilty of self neglect.
"Obesity and diabetes used to be seen as middle-age problems, but now we're seeing more and more children with both problems," Rigby said.
"But remember, in this era of nonstop advertising about low-nutrient, high-calorie foods, many parents find it difficult to tear their children from sweets and persuade them to eat fruit and vegetables."
He said he hoped social workers would find out what has caused his obesity.