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Is Child Obesity Child Abuse?

Posted by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:42 PM
  • 24 Replies

A South Carolina woman was charged with criminal neglect when her 14 year old son reached a shocking 555 pounds.  I am sure that many of you can understand the charge because the example is so egregious.  But how do we know this is really the mother’s fault?  And if we do decide to charge parents of obese kids with child abuse, where do we draw the line?

As a Pediatrician and Child Obesity Expert, I see a wide range of overweight children.  Some patients are simply ten pounds overweight while others are more than one hundred pounds overweight.  How do you decide who to charge with criminal neglect?

Many of the parents of my morbidly obese patients have been struggling (unsuccessfully) to keep their kids’ weights down.  They beg.  They plead.  They keep junk food out of the house.  They lock their refrigerators.  Yet these kids still manage to gain access to food.

It is somewhat easier to protect a younger child.  But even at school, a kid can overeat.  All a child has to do is cry that he is hungry and the lunch aides will serve him a second (or even a third) helping.  And many a heavy child has begged their thinner classmates for some of their lunch.  At the many parties thrown in class (for birthdays, holidays, and “special” days), these kids try to eat as many servings as possible.  Even worse, a Mom may give her daughter some money to buy a turkey sandwich and never know that she used it to buy French fries and cookies instead.  Parents have very little control over what their kids are eating out of the house.

Socioeconomic factors also play a role in the development of child obesity.  I will admit, my family and I ate at McDonald’s last month during a long car trip and I was shocked at how little it cost.  My family of four ate for less than $15.  It’s no wonder that families with little money often opt for this cheap, but unhealthy, option.

Obesity rates are also affected by environmental factors, like access to playgrounds and parks.  Many families live in unsafe areas where kids can’t simply go outside to play.  These children are often kept indoors for their own safety.  And what do these kids do while cooped up in the house?  Eat and watch television, more risk factors for weight gain.  How can we blame parents for these inequities?

Some kids are genetically predisposed for obesity.  While less than 10% of all cases of child obesity are due to known genetic defects, it does happen.  Some individuals are deficient (or resistant to) the effects of a protein called leptin.  Leptin is what tells our brain that we are full and no longer need to eat.  Mice studies prove that mice with leptin defects become obese, sometimes to the point of eating themselves to death!  These mice will eat until they become sick… and then they eat some more.

Some obese individuals have been found to have these same leptin defects.  Clearly, obesity in these kids cannot be their parents’ fault.  It is possible that genetic defects are responsible for more cases of child obesity than we realize because we haven’t yet discovered the responsible genes.  I would hate to put a mother in jail or separate a family only to find out a few years later that the child suffers from a previously unheard of genetic defect.  There is simply no way to know for sure whether a child is obese because of a parent’s neglect or some genetic predisposition.

This is not simply conjecture.  A family in Britain was on a Social Service’s watch list, at risk for losing their children, due to their kids’ weights.  Luckily, Dr. Sadaf Forooqi discovered a gene deletion that left these kids unresponsive to leptin, causing them to live in constant hunger.  Dr. Forooqi spoke to authorities and Social Services dropped the investigation.  Had Dr. Forooqi not made that discovery in time, this family would have been devastated for no reason!

So let’s go back to our initial example of the 555 pound South Carolina teen, Alexander Draper.  His mother, Jerri Gray lost custody of her son and is being charged with criminal neglect. Gray is facing 15 years on two felony counts, the first U.S. felony case involving childhood obesity, said her lawyer, Grant Varner.  Could Alexander suffer from an unknown genetic abnormality?  Are we sure that he can control his hunger in a normal way?  Alexander Draper hasn’t even been tested for genetic causes of obesity, according to Varner.  How can we justify putting this woman in jail for something that may not be her fault?  We don’t know what goes on in that house.  It is possible that the problem lies within Alexander’s DNA.  And how can we punish his mother for that?

Now I am not saying that all parents are blameless.  It is horrifying to see parents feeding obese children unhealthy foods and parents must be responsibility for keeping their kids as healthy as possible.  I am just not sure that jail is the answer.

by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:42 PM
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Replies (1-10):
lovemymarine306
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:44 PM

some kids are just cubby, and that's life.  but when a parent allows a child to become morbidly obese, especially at a young age, that parent is putting the child's life in danger.  so yes, it can be abuse.

                                  

ryleesmommy2009
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:45 PM

i agree something that big 555 pds is outrageous something should have been done a while ago!

sandra_t00
by Ruby Member on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:46 PM

I agree, My son eats healthy, I pack his lunches, I dont let him eat junk yet he is still chubby, but he is also very tall for a 5 yr old. He can pass for a 7 or 8 yr old

Quoting lovemymarine306:

some kids are just cubby, and that's life.  but when a parent allows a child to become morbidly obese, especially at a young age, that parent is putting the child's life in danger.  so yes, it can be abuse.


"I game, therefore I am"



hautemama83
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:47 PM

 I think that in some cases yes it is child abuse. However I do believe that in order for neglect to be established, different factors have to be considered. For example age of the child, as well as over all health, and even home life. As far as the 14 y/o in the OP, not so sure that would really fall into and "abuse" category. At that age the child is by far old enough to get food them self, I believe it could be out of the hands of the parent at that point.


But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
---Umberto Eco

MommaToSam
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:47 PM

 I agree. When it gets to the point where the person is bed ridden, SOMEONE is still bringing them junk food OR too much (IF that is what they are eating.) I can totally understand that there must be medical conditions where involuntary and uncontrollable weight gain is unavoidable. But, a lot of the documentaries I see are just people who eat for emotional reasons. It's very sad that they are being enabled. 

Quoting ryleesmommy2009:

i agree something that big 555 pds is outrageous something should have been done a while ago!

 

**IF I HAVE POSTED/REPLIED IN ALL CAPS IT IS BECAUSE I AM POSTING FROM MY WORK COMPUTER AND IT IS A PITA TO SWITCH FROM CAPS TO NON-CAPS ALL DAY LONG...YES, I AM ON CM PRETTY MUCH ALL DAY AT WORK (HANGS HEAD IN SHAME) **

teaching_mama
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:49 PM

I am not sure that you could necessarily consider it child abuse or that the parent should lose custody of the child (I mean there are people that do far worse things to their children intentionally and still have custody), but I do think that something should be done.

Maybe parents should be made to attend some sort of class about food and nutrition and diet and exercise. I think a lot of times parents don't always know what they are doing to their kids or how the food they eat is affecting them. I mean I watched Food Revolution last week. The family they showed used their deep fryer for almost every meal and drank tons of sugary pop and then were surprised to find out that their 12 year old son was showing early signs of diabetes and that they were cutting about 14 to 15 years off of their kids lives. That tells me that parents need to be educated about giving their kids healthier options and getting their kids involved in cooking and choosing healthy foods so that kids can learn how to make healthy choices for themselves. I think that it is very sad to see the amount of people in America that just feed their children fast food or frozen processed meals. And then the kids grow up hating healthy foods like fruits and vegetables because they never had them in their house. My daughter loves fruits and vegetables and would pick them over something sugary many times if given the choice. She loves to eat things like nuts or cherry tomatoes or yogurt with granola cereal for a snack. She is 2 by the way. I'm not saying she doesn't like junk food too, everyday she asks me for fruit snacks and a cookie....but I always have fresh, healthy foods in the house so she has been exposed her whole life and has learned to like them.

little.knickers
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:50 PM

 Yes....if the child is hugely overweight then it is NEGLECT. The parent is failing to give the child the nutrition they need, and is putting them at risk of long term health problems in a similar way that a parent who doesn't feed their kid does.

You are responsible for making the decisions about your childs health and well being...and if you dont do that, then you're being neglectful. End of.

misssy2000
by Ruby Member on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:51 PM

not really, but in cases where its so much weight its the parents fault. Actually whatever size your kids are is your  fault you buy the food. So unless they have a medical condition then its all the parents fault. I actually really feel this way after seeing those parents on maruy that feed there kids like 6 bowls of grits, 2 packs of bacon, and a gallon of of kool aid saying its all they eat.




teaching_mama
by on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:52 PM

Even though the child is definitely old enough to make their own food choices, if they were never taught how to make healthy choices or never exposed to fresh, healthy foods only to fast food and processed things, of course they are going to choose the junk food. It is the parent's job to teach the child to make healthy choices.

Quoting hautemama83:

 I think that in some cases yes it is child abuse. However I do believe that in order for neglect to be established, different factors have to be considered. For example age of the child, as well as over all health, and even home life. As far as the 14 y/o in the OP, not so sure that would really fall into and "abuse" category. At that age the child is by far old enough to get food them self, I believe it could be out of the hands of the parent at that point.


cowboygal
by Gold Member on Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:53 PM

 We eat healthy at home. But I agree, it is so hard at school to know what they buy with that money. We had like 5 different lines to choose from in high school.

 

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