IS CHILDHOOD OBESITY A FORM OF CHILD ABUSE? Factors to Consider in Judicial Rulings

Article excerpt

In 2009, a South Carolina woman, [erri Cl ray, was arrested and charged with criminal neglect when it was discovered that her 14-year-old son, Alexander, weighed 555 pounds.1 Alexander was removed from his mother's care and placed in a foster home. This case igni led a national debate as to whether or not childhood obesity should be considered a form of child abuse. In recent years, courts in several states have grappled with this question. Rulings have varied, with most courts ordering that (he child be immediately removed from his or her parent's custody. Other ronrt.s have miiialh opted for more therapeutic measures, such as providing these families with medical assistance or ordering parents to implement diel and exercise plans for their child. Yet. even when courts attempi io address childhood obesity through less punitive approaches, the child is often eventually placed in protective custody.

Arguments exist both for and againts the consideration of childhood obesity as abuse. Those in favor of classifying obesity as a form of child abuse cite the immediate and long-term negativo health and psychosocial effects of childhood obesity and legal definitions of abuse. Those against classifying obesity as a form of child abuse often argue that parents have a constitutional right to raise their children in whatever way they deem appropriate; they also emphasize that some cases of childhood obesity may be attributable to human genetics or other environmental iniluences (e.g.. school and peers) beyond parental control. Based on these arguments, this article- proposes that childhood obesity should be considered child abuse in only the most extreme cases in which all other court interventions aimed at addressing this problem have failed. In all cases, rulings should lie based in therapeutic jurisprudence, characterized by the maximization of therapeutic outcomes for children and families without subordinating due process or other justice values.2

Obesity rates are on the rise in the U.S., with over 30 percent of children in 30 different states classified as obese.3 In the 1970s. 5 percent of children were classified us overweight,'1 as compared to 32 percent in 2003-2006.' In 2003. the U.S. Surgeon General labeled childhood obesity as an "epidemic" and called for action to address this "preventable" problem.' This surge in childhood obesi iy coupled with public outrage towards parents of morbidly obese children suggests that courts may face an increasing number of cases involving obese children and their families.

Though it is the coourt's job to protect children, this does not always mean that charging parents witli child abuse and subsequently removing that child from their care is the best and/ or only option. Scholars, judges, and the legal community as a whole should be aware of the pertinent factors to consider in such cases and make increased efforts io address this obesity epidemic through less distressful means (i.e. family counseling, nutrition education). Targeting the underlying causes of obcsiiv within each individual family unit focuses on moving toward solutions rather than promoting punitive reactions to childhood obesity.

Past court cases

One of the first major court cases on this issue was In re L.T., in which an Iowa court affirmed the decision of the trial court to have Liza, a 10-year-old weighing 290 pounds, removed from her mother's care and placed in a treatment facility.2 The conn reasoned that "the child's obesity was a potentially life-threatening condition, and (hat it interfered with the child's socialization." Though this case did not define the mother's actions as "child abuse," they did determine Liza was a "child in need of assistance.'"As a result of Liza's mother's refusai lo place her in a treatment facilitv, Liza was immediately placed in foster care.

As the recognition of obesity as a global "epidemic" became a focus of national research, cases presenting morbid obesitv as child abuse became increasingly public. …