Obese Face Obstacles in Adoption Process

Experts say despite risks, obese parents can still adopt.

July 31, 2007 — -- The notoriously complex adoption process just got even harder for one man who claims his weight led a judge to deem him ineligible to adopt.

Gary Stocklaufer told KMBC-TV in Kansas City, Mo., that a family court judge ruled him an unfit adoptive parent because of his 500-pound figure. Stocklaufer wants to adopt his infant cousin because the mother is unable to care for the child.

With adoption agencies scrutinizing potential adoptive parents' every move — from criminal background checks to bank records — cases like Stocklaufer's raise questions about what personal factors should be considered during adoption proceedings.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Obesity remains just one of many factors social workers consider when determining whether an individual would make a good adoptive parent, experts told ABC News.

"[In order to become an adoptive parent] there's a lengthy home study and it's a process where a licensed social worker comes to the home and reviews everything from the family background, living conditions, health, security and views the home for safety issues," says Lee Allen, a spokesman for the National Council for Adoption. "The home study is used to determine a family's ability to provide permanency for a child."

Obesity, he says, only becomes an issue for a potential parent when it could jeopardize the stability of the child's home.

"There are criteria for adoptive parents and that does include health criteria," Allen said. "The goal for adoption, of course, is to provide permanency for a child who doesn't have that. But when someone has a health risk that could produce a risk to permanency then it has to be looked at."

While some may consider this to be unfair discrimination, some say this comprehensive review is considered by some to be one of the greatest advantages of the adoption system and an effective way to prevent children from returning to the foster care system.

"We do have the opportunity with adoption to make sure that people who might make unsafe parents don't get through the process," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation." "But the process should certainly not be one in which people can be parents based on income or their posture or their weight or in general any other factor that is by a common standard unreasonable."

When Does Obesity Matter?

The majority of adoption cases rarely hinge on a single factor such as the adoptive parent's weight, but this could change if more judges and adoption agencies decide to consider obesity as a high risk to children entering the home.

"If someone is obese and therefore has diabetes and has had two heart attacks, well that's a big risk for that kid," Pertman said. "If the circumstance in the given case is that this kid isn't going to get a long-term loving home then you have to make a tough judgment."

There are already a few agencies that are known for being sticklers about weight, one expert told ABC News, but obesity as the only reason for rejecting adoptive parents is still uncommon.

"Anecdotally we know that some people think that some agencies won't place a child with obese parents," said Denise St. Clair, executive director of the National Center for Adoption Law and Policy. "But it's still difficult for me to imagine the situation in which weight in and of itself would be an appropriate ruling out factor, because certainly there are coping mechanisms and there are individual personality traits and traits of parents that could certainly outweigh [an obesity issue]."

Some argue that it shouldn't matter how much a parent weighs, as long as they are willing and generous enough to provide a loving home for a child in need.

While this may be true to some extent, medical experts told ABC News that obesity — and the associated health risks — may be something that adoption agencies should consider more often when finding a permanent home for a child.

"Kids learn what they see and parents, whether they like it or not, are role models for our kids," said Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who argues that the environment in which a child is raised plays an important role in reducing their risk of obesity.

For Now, Obesity Isn't Key

Ayoob says that obesity alone is a health risk, regardless of whether diagnoses of diseases like diabetes and heart failure have been made.

"When you get into morbid obesity — when you're at least 100 pounds overweight or double your ideal body weight — that's when you're getting into significant medical complications," Ayoob said. "The fact that you're that overweight is a complication in and of itself. Our bodies are not meant to carry that much weight around and breathing is a problem automatically."

Of course, just because a parent is obese that doesn't necessarily mean the child they adopt will be.

"The choices heavier adoptive people would make for their adoptive children probably range in a spectrum and probably some make very god nutritional choices and activity choices and other don't make such wise environmental choices," said Robert Brayden, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado.

For now, there is no evidence to show that obese parents have a harder time adopting children than parents who are of normal weight. But experts warn that if adoption agencies and family court judges place more importance on the potential risk of obesity, a prospective adoptive parent's weight really could tip the scale in an adoption hearing.