By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
The boys were just 5 and 3 when a judge removed them from their mother.
Their grandmother, Yvette, had tried to save the family by inviting her daughter-in-law to move in with her while her son was serving in the Navy.
But Yvette discovered rampant abuse and neglect. Sometimes the mother would force the children to take cold medication so they would sleep. Other times, she used food to punish or reward Pablo and Tony. (Note: because of the allegations of abuse, Solutions is not using real names of the children or grandmother in order to safeguard the children.)
“I started observing things. There was some physical abuse and a lot of mental abuse. Sometimes she wouldn’t let them eat. Or she’d get a bag of Cheetos and give them that instead of feeding them a meal,” Yvette said.
Yvette used to work at the University of Colorado’s Center for Human Nutrition. For her job there, she had organized and attended national conferences on obesity. She knew how vital it was to give children nutritious food to boost their growth and brain development.
At first, Yvette hoped she could fix the problem by racing home after work with fresh groceries.
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“I thought I’d just cook for everyone. But she’d say, ‘No thanks. We’ve already eaten.’”
Mystified, Yvette saw no evidence that any dishes had been used.
Later, she learned that the mother had spanked the children for hugging her. Horrified, the grandmother found herself in a battle with the mother, who apparently equated unhealthy treats with love and had the twisted notion that she could control her children better if she refused to let the grandmother feed them. Eventually Yvette, 48, and her son, 29, the children’s father, were awarded full custody. The mother no longer visits the children.
Today, Pablo is 9 and struggling with his weight. His little brother has the opposite problem. Tony is 7, but looks much younger. He’s just grown out of size 4T clothes, meant for toddlers. Pablo is shy and wears glasses. The abuse seemed to trigger opposite reactions in the boys. Tony doesn’t grow as fast. Pablo eats too much.
“He’s very introverted. Food is a way of stuffing emotions. I’ve taken them to a counselor. They think they’re adapting now. But these kids have gone through a lot,” Yvette says.
Experts on nutrition and child obesity say that the problem is extremely complex. Beth Ondrako, a nutritionist who works with Rocky Mountain Youth Clinics’ Get Fit program, finds that obesity can be a physical symptom of issues like depression or neglect.
“Kids eat for so many reasons. It’s like adults,” Ondrako said. “We’re seeing more cases where obesity is the least of their problems. We have kids who are suicidal. Especially with teens, they can have such a hard time. There’s a lot of bullying and there are lots of self-esteem issues.”
When Ondrako and the medical providers find complex emotional problems, they seek help from mental health experts.
But helping young people get fit can also fight depression.
“They find their mood changes. When they take care of their bodies, the depression might lift,” Ondrako said.
Being able to address private issues about body image or related depression with a trusted doctor can be a huge help. That’s a core component of Get Fit.
Yvette was thrilled to find the program so that outsiders could help her emphasize the importance of health and nutrition.
“I liked the class approach. It gave the kids personal responsibility and tools to make their decisions on their own. They get choices at their school over they’re going to eat a taco or a sub sandwich. Now they’re going to be better able to make those decisions and I’m not going to be the bad guy. Now there’s someone else telling them (to eat well). And it’s a medical person.”
Yvette has another son who is also 9, whom she adopted while she was living on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His mother had abandoned him. So, all three boys are coping with emotional challenges. She’s careful to tell the boys that even though their mothers couldn’t care for them, it doesn’t mean they were not loved.
Yvette appreciated the open invitation from Get Fit for all family members to attend.
“I loved that they said, ‘Bring everybody.’ That takes away the stigma. We all need to be healthy and fit.”
Soon after the boys attended their first nutrition class, they started insisting on changes at home. They talked about reading labels and changed from sugary cereals to Cheerios.
“They have taken a personal ownership for what they’re eating. They haven’t done that before. That was encouraging for me,” Yvette said. “Just to have an awareness is enough to get them started so they can make their own decisions not to eat processed foods.”
Yvette hopes to add more physical activity too.
“If you’re conscious enough about what you’re putting in your body, you’re also going to look at exercise,” she said. “This thing about food is spreading into something bigger. It’s about mental health and physical health and overall well-being.”