Childhood Obesity and Child Abuse: Is Child Obesity Child Abuse?

childhood-obesity-epidemic-150x150-1-6 Is childhood obesity child abuse? Should parents of overweight or obese children be criminally charged with child abuse or neglect, where parents may be found guilty of child abuse and sentenced to jail time for having an overfed or obese child? When does parental indulgence become child abuse or neglect? Who is responsible when children are overweight or clinically obese, and should governmental agencies get involved?

A report by USA Today has attracted national attention to the case of a 555-pound teenage boy in South Carolina, whose mother was arrested in June and charged with criminal neglect because of her son’s weight. 14-year-old Alexander Draper is now in foster care, pending the outcome of charges against his mother, 49-year-old Jerri Gray.

“Jerri Gray was doing all she could to help her son lose weight, her attorney says. But something had gone terribly wrong for the boy to hit the 555-pound mark by age 14. Authorities in South Carolina say that what went wrong was Gray’s care and feeding of her son, Alexander Draper. Gray, 49, of Travelers Rest, S.C., was arrested in June and charged with criminal neglect.”

If your child or teenager is overweight or clinically obese, could your child be taken away from you, followed by you being charged with child abuse or neglect? Jerri Gray’s attorney, Grant Varner, says this case could open the door to criminal charges against parents whose children become dangerously overweight.

“If she’s found guilty on those criminal charges, you have set a precedent that opens Pandora’s box,” Grant Varner says. “Where do you go next?”

Childhood obesity is on the rise all across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many states have begun to take legal action against parents. According to a 2008 report published by Child Welfare League of America, state courts in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Mexico, Indiana and California have been trying to decide what to do about obesity in children.

In all of those cases, except the one in California, courts expanded their state’s legal definition of medical neglect to include morbid obesity and ruled that the children were victims of neglect, the report says. Criminal charges were filed only in the California and Indiana cases, but the parents weren’t sentenced to jail time in either.

Childhood Obesity – Child Abuse?

connor-mccreaddie Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America says criminal charges should be a last resort. “I think I would draw the line at a place where there are serious health consequences for the child and efforts to work with the family have repeatedly failed,” she says. “What’s more often needed is a structured plan of action that’s accountable to a court. Most of the time, the health problems tied to childhood obesity don’t become chronic until adulthood, which makes it difficult to charge parents with child abuse”, Spears says.

Obesity in children is not just a problem in the U.S., with children of all ages developing health problems because of poor nutrition, over-consumption and inactivity, and many countries around the world are working hard to combat child obesity. In a 2007 New York case involving an adolescent girl who weighed 261 pounds, the court ordered nutritional counseling, cooking classes and gym workouts.

35-year-old Nicola McKeown, mother of 8-year-old Connor McCreaddie, almost lost custody of her 200-pound child in 2007 for feeding him too much. Authorities involved in the case called a “child protection conference” to consider removing him from his home, claiming “Child abuse is not just about hitting your children or sexually abusing them, it is also about neglect.” The meeting concluded with an agreement for health officials and a dietician to continue trying to help the family deal with Connor’s obesity, rather than removing him from the family home.

The USA Today article raises the question of a possible “Pandora’s Box” scenario. “What about the parents of every 16-year-old in Beverly Hills who’s too thin? Are they going to start arresting parents because their child is too thin?” Will parents of anorexic or bulimic kids be next on the list of the “fat police”?

  • As a parent, when was the last time you took close inventory of the foods, snacks and drinks found in your kitchen, to determine whether or not changes are needed in your family’s diet?
  • What personal eating habits are you teaching your children based on what you typically consume as the parent?
  • What grocery store aisles do you spend most of your time and money while grocery shopping? The outer aisles with fresh meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables etc, or the inner aisles with high calorie, high fat, low nutritional processed foods and snacks? Are you and your family “junk food junkies”?

Where governmental agencies and health officials will draw the line between childhood obesity and child abuse is still unclear, but what is clear is that parents are primarily responsible for what their children consume and in what amount. School cafeteria meals have improved over the years, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. When parents overfeed their child to the point of obesity, parents puts the child at risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke etc, and are ignoring the health risks associated with overeating.

Characterizing child obesity as child abuse is stretching things a bit, but it appears the days of parents claiming their child is just a picky-eater and won’t eat healthy foods with proper portion control may be coming to an end. At least from a legal standpoint, because “Big Brother” is watching. According to the Institute of Medicine, NINE MILLION children in the United States over the age of six are considered obese, referring to obesity in children as “An Epidemic of Childhood Obesity”.

“The increasing number of obese children and youth throughout the United States has led policy makers to rank it as a critical public health threat. Since the 1970s, the prevalence (or percentage) of obesity has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and it has more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years. At present, approximately nine million children over six years of age are obese.”

Children learn what they live. Parents have to educate themselves about the importance of eating healthy themselves, be good role models for their kids, in order to teach their children good eating habits, nutritional food choices, portion control and exercise to live healthy lifestyles.  Children and teenagers spend a lot of time sitting – watching television, playing video games and browsing the internet, rather than getting natural exercise on a regular basis.

Leading a sedentary lifestyle, while also eating the wrong foods and in the wrong proportions, leads to obesity and health problems. Many parents have wisely chosen to buy Wii Fit for themselves and their children, and when combined with healthy food choices, the results of losing weight and improving their overall health is a benefit the whole family can enjoy. We really don’t need governmental agencies to tell us this, do we?

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