SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Wednesday March 11, 2015 – Puerto Rico has a disturbing obesity rate among young people, with over 28 percent of children considered obese, compared to around 18 percent on the US mainland, and the figures demonstrating what many call a “national health crisis.”
Now, in the best traditions of drastic situations deserving drastic measures, a controversial law has been introduced in the senate that could soon brand Puerto Rican parents with obese children “child abusers” and force them to pay a fine.
The bill, introduced by Senator Gilbert Rodriguez Valle, would punish parents if it was determined that the child’s obesity stemmed from parental neglect.
The authority to identify obese children and educate parents on the consequences would lie with education officials, and parents would then be referred to Puerto Rico’s health department to work toward a plan for the child to lose weight.
Should officials determine that the child’s condition had not improved after six months, child-family services would be contacted. If the situation persisted, it could result in fines of up to US$800, according to a report in the Washington Post.
Many opponents of the proposal insist that child obesity does not indicate an inherent link to parental neglect or abuse, and such a bill is not an effective or realistic way to tackle the issue.
Nutritionist Milly Garcia, who opposes the bill, criticized it as government overreach.
“The fact that these childhood obesity cases are rooted in lifestyle does not give one the right to step into people’s private spaces,” she said. “This is not abuse, it’s a disease. It would mean entering into a private area where the government does not belong. Obesity is the result of many factors and what we need to do is find solutions.”
Meanwhile, Dr Ricardo Fontanet, president of the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that although Senator Valle was right to attempt to address the problem, there was a whole host of issues as to how he was going about it.
“You have to lose weight, sure, but to have the state coming to your home, looking at how you do things and charging you with child abuse is dangerous…
“They’re not involving pediatricians, nutritionists, dieticians, the people who prepare the lunches in schools, in any of this,” Fontanet noted.
“Teachers aren’t trained to identify obese children; they don’t have the time, the facilities or the knowledge. They’re asking people with no knowledge of dealing with obesity to identify these patients.”
Dr Fontanet nevertheless added that in his discussions with Senator Valle about the measure, Valle said he did not actually expect the bill to be passed into law; he only wanted to “shake the tree so everyone sees this.”