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

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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13 Responses to “Childhood Obesity and Child Abuse: Is Child Obesity Child Abuse?”

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  1. Mrs. Micah says:

    That’s a tough one. I’d say that in most cases a kid being fat isn’t abuse. A kid being 555 pounds means something horrible is going on. Neglect, bad parenting, lack of discipline, lack of medical treatment, something very bad is happening. I don’t think the mother should face jail time, but I think social services should definitely be involved at this point.
    .-= Mrs. Micah´s last blog ..Evaluating the Prestige of a Graduate School and Its Value to Your Career =-.

    • Lin says:

      Mrs. Micah, I do believe there are (and will be) legal cases where neglect will be proven and kids will be taken away from their parent(s). Bad or lax parenting? You betcha! I think one of the biggest problems parents and society faces is the lack of nutritional knowledge on the part of the parents and the causes/effects of feeding kids too much. Eating too much of the right foods, foods that are healthy and high in nutrients, can make a person/child fat too.

      Moderation…….

      There are also parents who were never taught to eat healthy themselves while growing up, and they’re passing onto their own children the habit of eating junk foods most/all of the time, then have the deer-in-the-headlights look on their face when they’re told their child is obese.

  2. Rob O. says:

    I’m a bit of a rare case, in that my Mom was a health food fanatic decades before it was popular and I was still a heavy child. I was beginning to be heavy late in infancy – overweight before I was 3 – and Mom did make quite a few efforts to find reasons why and (medically) move to correct this. Sadly, it was decades later before a doctor put together that I had a host of systemic Endocrine deficiencies.

    But that’s a far cry from what’s happening with most obese children now. They’re overweight due to a lack of activity and very, very poor dietary choices. And I do think that’s a kind of abuse via apathy. So many parents just blindly go along with popular conventions about diet – thinking that there’s nothing too wrong with the crap that’s on the McDonald’s kids menu. They don’t question for a moment that most of the kid-targeted food items at the grocery store are nutritionally void, comprised of processed ingredients that’ve been stripped of their food value.

    But there’s no reason for dietary ignorance now – the information is there to help you make wiser eating choices for your family. Pick up a loaf of bread and the labels shows it to have <1g of fiber? Put that trash down and find something better! Your kids balk at eating more healthful foods? If you make the alternative not eat at all, you'll ind that they'll warm up to the new foods. (And of course, if you ease them subtly into these less-sugary, more nutritious foods, they may not even notice.)

    Our schools play a huge part in this too. But there again, comes into play the parent involvement. If parents don't question why the only chicken their children ever eat is in the form of a nugget, then why would the schools feel the need to change?
    .-= Rob O.´s last blog .."C" is for Cookie =-.

    • Lin says:

      Rob, your comment was temporarily eaten by Askimet, sorry! You’re so right! I’m one of those parents that says if you don’t eat the dinner that’s being served, you don’t get to eat anything else. When kids get hungry, really….hungry, they’ll eat the healthy meals parents offer. Junk foods/fast food in today’s society is more often what kids are fed by parents, but the damage to their child’s health and weight must be addressed. Like you said, there are very healthy food choices parents can and need to choose for their children/family, and avoid the junk for the well being of their family’s health, or at least greatly minimize the amount of junk food/sweets/chocolates/candy etc their family’s consume.

  3. Monica says:

    I wouldn’t say child abuse as long as the parents aren’t feeding him/her constantly as you would a pig or chick. Obese children are like tips of an iceberg. You only see how fat they are but underneat there’s a complex physical, social and psychological network.
    .-= Monica´s last blog ..FUN AT BOCA CHICA =-.

    • Lin says:

      Whether or not childhood obesity is or will be deemed child abuse is a highly controversial topic. But parents who have obese or overweight children are being given a serious heads up on this issue, and the idea/possibility that obesity in children could lead authorities to take kids away from their parents is very serious.

  4. Erika says:

    Do you mind a teen’s input?

    As a small child, I ate far too much. I was always going for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc – and would throw fits if I was denied. Three meals a day for me was too little. I had to eat more, more, and then some more. Nothing was ever enough to satisfy my appetite, and cravings for food. As you might expect, I was quite overweight as a result.

    The reasons for this overeating could be traced to many things. Some of them are, indeed, related to my parents. Such as: my mother buying unhealthy food, my father being overweight, every Saturday turning into McDonald’s day, and so forth. But underneath all that, my eating habits were very emotional.

    You see, from day one, I was always bad at coping – and food (along with self-injury, minor stealing, etc) was just another way for young me to deal with all the stress, hurt, fear, lack of control over situations, and other negative emotions. Food became a safe heaven, something that took the pain away. After awhile, my mother did try to intervene – dieting, healthy food options, etc – but I found a way to eat a lot anyways. Buying extra food at school with my account, sneaking snacks when nobody looked, and sharing food with friends were only some ways I made it past my Mom’s watch. It’s a miracle I never hit the obese stage.

    I hated myself for how my body looked; however, I couldn’t seem to stop eating. I was disgusted by the feeling of food inside me. So, as others in my situation have done, I turned to bulimia. Now I could eat all I want, and make sure that horrible full feeling went away after. As an added plus, I felt in control of my OWN weight! It seemed great at first.

    It would take some time before I realized that my original eating problem had a name – compulsive overeating. It had been a result of a bad home situation (crack addicted Dad, divorce, stressed out mom), sexual abuse (via an older boy my mother babysat), anxiety, and – later on – depression. Unable to deal with my emotions in a healthy way, I tried to move through intense feeling the best I could – through food.

    The point I’m trying to make is that weight issues – while in some cases are a result of the parents – are often a lot more complex than neglect. Many times, there is an actual eating disorder involved (compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder), and the states should look more closely before pressing charges. Just as you wouldn’t take an anorexic or bulimic child away from their family unless it was a last resort issue, we should not take obese kids from their parents without close investigation.

    Just my thoughts on the issue,
    Erika

    NOTE: I realize there are many situations where actual “neglect” may exist, people just shouldn’t jump so quickly to tear a part families.

    • Lin says:

      Erika, thank you for describing some of your own personal reasons children become obese. The reasons why children become overweight at a very young age is elementary – childhood obesity is not rocket science.

  5. wilson says:

    Lin, parent is one of the toughest job of all. As a parent, we always want to give the best to our children. However, the doting mum/dad is going to put themselves in trouble, when their children is having the problem, like you’ve mentioned in above!
    .-= wilson´s last blog ..The Top 5 Medical Television Shows =-.

    • Lin says:

      Hi Wilson,

      Parenting is a very tough job and it doesn’t get any easier the older kids get. Properly feeding children vs feeding kids too much and with the wrong foods and portion sizes (plus other factors) is Basic Parenting 101.

  6. Rob O. says:

    No rational adult could actually believe that McNuggets, Hostess donuts, Spaghettios, Easy Mac, or Wonder Bread are good for their child… Routinely opting for “easy” over “good” is beyond neglect – it’s more like callous ignorance or criminal apathy.
    .-= Rob O.´s last blog ..Can Apple Save Handwriting? =-.

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  1. [...] their parents. One child actually drew national attention when it was announced he weighed in at 555lbs and was only 14 years old, he is currently in foster care.  There was also the 200lb boy that was only 8 years [...]

  2. [...] facts about childhood obesity cannot be ignored, and some parents have actually been arrested and charged with child abuse and neglect because their teen is morbidly obese, creating a firestorm of controversy around the country. The [...]