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Raising a Dangerously Obese Child Is a Shame — But Is It a Crime?

Putting 555-pound Alexander Draper's mother in prison won't help anyone.

by
Michele Catalano

Bio

July 27, 2009 - 12:04 am
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At the heart of this story lies a bigger issue than the child’s weight. What kind of precedent would be set if Gray is found guilty of these charges? The proverbial slippery slope could end up in a waterfall of bad laws. If you arrest a mother for letting her child get fat, where do you stop? Do you arrest the parents of the young girl with anorexia? Do you take children away from their parents if they smoke or drink or do drugs, even when away from their homes? What about kids who don’t do homework? Kids who lead sedentary lifestyles? Kids with high cholesterol or low iron? What is neglect and what is bad parenting and where do you draw the distinction between them?

It’s unfortunate that Alexander was allowed to get to this point, but is it criminal? Gray did neglect to take her son for his medical appointments. She did neglect to follow through on his treatment plan and she did flee the state with him when authorities were looking for her. That, obviously, is a criminal act. But I think the rest of this can be solved not with criminal charges and jail time, but with education. Enroll Ms. Gray in mandatory nutrition classes. Mandate medical appointments for Alexander. Social services could oversee the regulation of the boy’s diet and weight loss. There are so many options here besides the one that will bring a slew of similar cases to the court, cases where the state will probably step over their boundaries by using the Gray case as a precedent. If they can try a woman for her son’s health problem, what’s to stop an overzealous government from prosecuting parents for habits they consider bad or unhealthy? Sure, there was an aspect of neglect here, but the cure for things that ail society is not always more laws, more regulations, and more prosecution.

Sometimes that cure lies in eradicating the symptoms one at a time. Set a better precedent by showing other parents how Gray and her son can overcome this situation by working together with experts and educators.

Maybe this case will give parents like the man I saw in the grocery store an opportunity to think about what they’re doing to their children. There are thousands of families out there like this. I think that those watching this case because it reflects their own lives would derive more benefit from watching Gray and Alexander enjoy the benefits of a healthy rehabilitation than they would from watching mother and son get separated by a suspect law.

In a case like this, don’t legislate or incarcerate. Educate.

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Michele Catalano lives, writes, and takes photographs on Long Island.
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