Meet Jerri Gray. On the surface, she’s just your average single mother. She works as much as she can to provide for her child, a boy named Alexander Draper. Sometimes, she works two or three jobs at a time in order to make ends meet. There are thousands of single moms out there just like her, doing the best they can to get by. But Jerri’s case is just a little different.
Alexander is an obese child. And by obese, I mean morbidly obese. At 14 years old, he weighed a whopping 555 pounds. Her excuse was that she had to work a lot in order to provide for him, which led to eating mostly fast food all the time. But does that explain or excuse her son being the size of a baby killer whale?
According to the South Carolina government, the answer was no. Alex was going to be forcibly removed from his mother. Her response was to become a fugitive. She fled to Maryland with her son, where she was eventually found, arrested, and charged with child neglect — a felony which could land her in prison for ten years. She was released on bail, and lost custody of her son.
After Alex was taken away from her he was placed with a family member. Since living with his aunt, he has lost 300 pounds.
Another mom, Jennifer, was recently on the Dr. Phil show with her four-year-old son, Grayson. He weighs 115 pounds. Jennifer admitted that she overfed him intentionally because it made her feel “nurturing.”
Parents like Jerri and Jennifer are hardly a rarity, as evidenced by the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity across America and the world. And in response there are more and more calls for these children to be taken away from their parents, and for charges of child abuse or neglect to follow. But is this really a good idea? After all, having a fat kid has never before been a case of child abuse. But morbid obesity, such as the cases of Alex and Grayson, is different. These kids, and children like them, will suffer lifelong medical problems because of their obesity. So is it child abuse or not, and do their parents deserve to lose custody? According to both Jerri and Jennifer, their kids were fat, but not unhealthy. Is that true? How bad is it to be an overweight kid, anyways?
Right away, obese children become at risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). There are two risk factors for CVD: high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In one study, 70% of obese children had one of these risk factors, and 39% had two or more. These kids are also more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance, and insulin resistance, as well as bone and joint problems, asthma, and sleep apnea. They’re at a higher risk for fatty liver disease and gallstones. One study found that obese children had arteries that had prematurely aged, and were similar to those of a 45 year old.
And let’s not forget the psychological effects. Everyone remembers the fat kid in class growing up. That kid stuck out and was bullied and teased — this causes real psychological issues. Children are more likely to end up being stigmatized and to suffer from extremely low self-esteem and depression. It can also kick children into early puberty.
And these are just the immediate effects. What happens long-term?
Well, for starters, children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults. And obesity in adulthood leads to increased risks of an entire array of health problems: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, several different cancers (cancers of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate), multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Obesity is now considered the second most common cause of preventable death in adults, behind smoking.
So being obese is really, really bad for you. But does that mean that parents whose children are obese are child abusers? Should their children be taken away from them?
It’s easy to understand why so many would clamor for the parents of obese children to lose custody. After all, these are serious health risks we’re talking about, and if these parents would just stop feeding their kids junk and make them be more active then there wouldn’t be a problem, right? That’s the line of thinking that goes behind this movement, anyways. It’s the parents’ fault that the child is so obese, and because they are doing nothing to stop it, then they should lose custody — for the good of the child, of course. And look at Alex Draper. Once he left his mother, he lost 300 pounds. Ron Jones, a wellness expert based out of Atlanta, has strong opinions on this topic. He believes childhood obesity equals child abuse, and says,
If you gave your child a drug, you’d be held in the court. But if you kill them with food, that seems to be acceptable.
The American Medical Journal has recommended that the state remove obese children from their parents. But of course, children should only be removed in “severe cases.” The British Medical Journal had a similar recommendation, saying that if parents had obese children and didn’t make reasonable efforts to get their children to lose weight, then the state should take them, calling it a “child protection concern.” One Scottish couple actually did lose custody of two of their six children, after receiving warnings to reduce their children’s weight. Connor McCreaddie, a British eight year old who weighed 200 pounds, was taken from his mother until she was able to wean him off of processed foods and get him to lose weight. There have been similar cases in the United States in addition to Jerri Gray’s in New York, California, New Mexico, Texas, and even in Canada, where parents have lost custody of their children over their weight. And in every case, I’m sure, it is done for the good of the child.
But what about parental rights? Why is that never brought up?
Taking obese children away from their parents opens up a nasty Pandora’s box. Yes, these children are at risk. But what about parents who smoke? Their children are at risk. So are the children of parents who drink too much, who drive badly, who do any number of things wrong. And what about children who end up anorexic or bulimic? We could blame that on the parents somehow too, I’m sure. And where does the line get crossed? How overweight is too overweight, and more importantly, who gets to decide?
I would think that, instead of putting the money towards removing these children and prosecuting the parents for child abuse, we could be offering resources to these families. Many of these families come from low-income backgrounds, and don’t know a better way to feed their children than cheap, high-fat, and high-calorie foods. Give them cooking classes, get them a nutritionist and a physical trainer. Plus, when you consider that public schools aren’t exactly leading the pack on keeping kids physically active and feeding them healthy, nutritious, low-fat lunches, you can’t lay the blame solely on the parents. If the government must get involved, then there is no reason that the child should be taken away. If we give these families the resources to help these children lose weight and they still don’t, then it would seem to be clear to me that there would be a deeper medical issue at play here, not that the child should be removed from the home.
The phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions is what is at play here. The best people for a child to be raised by are their mother and father, and childhood obesity simply doesn’t qualify as child abuse. The vast majority of these parents, I am sure, love their children very much and aren’t actively trying to make their children be saddled with health problems for the rest of their lives. No parent ever does a perfect job of parenting their children, and if we listed off the myriad mistakes parents make and then prosecuted them for it, then every parent in existence would end up in jail. These parents make mistakes like all of the rest of us do — why are they not given the opportunity try again?
We also have to keep in mind that this is crossing a line that could potentially take us down a very, very slippery slope. And while the intentions are of course for the best, in cases like these, parental rights come first.