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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

In aisle six there’s a man wheeling a grocery cart filled with prepackaged and ready-to-make food: TV dinners, frozen breakfasts, macaroni and cheese, and similar items. The cart is also overflowing with sugary cereals and a variety of soda. The man weighs about 400 pounds. With him is his son. The boy is about 12-years-old and weighs close to 200 pounds. He’s pointing to things he wants — Pop-Tarts, Oreos, Rice Krispies Treats — and the father is throwing everything the kid asks for into the cart.

“That’s child abuse,” I think to myself.  “That man is endangering the welfare of his child. He should be arrested.”

Of course, I was speaking hyperbolically. You can’t really arrest someone for what they choose to feed their child, right?

Now it seems as if my hyperbole wasn’t so outlandish after all. A South Carolina woman was arrested for criminal child neglect because her 14-year-old son, Alexander Draper, weighs 555 pounds.

When the boy’s mother, Jerri Gray, was asked for an explanation as to how her son got so dangerously obese, she said, “Well, a lot of times it had to do with lifestyle. A lot of times I had to work full time second shift or full time, third shift. And I wasn’t home a lot.” She explained that she would often purchase fast food for Alexander because she didn’t have time to cook due to work.

It’s easy to call the mother out on this. There’s no reason Gray could not have provided healthier food choices for her son.  Keeping fruits, vegetables, and low-fat food in the house so Alexander could have the opportunity to eat right would have been the right thing to do instead of filling the boy with fatty, fried foods.

At 14, there’s no reason Alexander couldn’t prepare his own meals when his mother wasn’t around — if he was taught to do so and provided with the proper, healthy ingredients. There are other factors as well. Gray had previously been contacted by social services in regards to her son. She was issued a treatment plan, appointments with doctors were made, and she was warned that she could lose custody of her son if she didn’t get his weight under control. Instead of helping her son, Gray fled with him to Baltimore (after failing to show up for a court appearance), where they were found by authorities. Gray was subsequently arrested on the child neglect charges and Alexander was placed in foster care.

Despite Gray’s mistakes in regards to her son, is she really a criminal? Does she deserve to go to prison for this or should attempts be made to educate Gray about nutrition and health and reunite her with son, perhaps with weekly visits from social services? There just seems to be so many ways to approach this besides further damaging this child by taking him away from his mother.

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.

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