I know posts have been practically non-existent here of late, but I couldn’t let this one slide.
By Ron Barnett
July 21, 2009
Jerri Gray was doing all she could to help her son lose weight, according to her attorney, Grant Varner. But something had gone terribly wrong for the boy to hit the 555-pound mark at the age of 14.
Authorities in South Carolina say what went wrong was Gray’s care and feeding of her son, Alexander Draper. The 49-year-old woman from Travelers Rest was arrested in June and charged with criminal neglect. Her son is now in foster care.
The case has attracted national attention. And with childhood obesity on the rise across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Varner believes it could open the door to more criminal action against parents whose children become dangerously overweight.
“If she’s found guilty on those criminal charges, you have set a precedent that opens Pandora’s Box,” he said. “Where do you go next?”
State courts in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Mexico, Indiana and California have grappled with the issue in recent years, according to a 2008 report published by the Child Welfare League of America.
In all of those cases except the one in California, the courts expanded their state’s legal definition of medical neglect to include morbid obesity and ruled that the children were victims of neglect, according to the report. Criminal charges were filed only in the California and Indiana cases, but the parents weren’t sentenced to jail time in either, the report says.
In the California case, the mother of a 13-year-old girl who weighed 680 pounds was charged with child abuse, but the child died before the case was decided in 1998, and charges were reduced to a misdemeanor level, according to the report. In the Indiana case, the mother was sentenced to probation and community service, the report says.
More recently, the case in New York in 2007 involved an adolescent girl who weighed 261 pounds, according to the report. The court ordered nutritional counseling, cooking classes and gym workouts, the report says.
Most cases of childhood obesity aren’t abuse, but some may amount to neglect and call for a structured plan of action that’s accountable to a court, said Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America. Criminal charges may be appropriate in some cases as a last resort, she said.
“I think I would draw the line at a place where there are serious health consequences for the child and efforts to work with the family have repeatedly failed,” she said.
Most of the time, the health problems associated with childhood obesity don’t become chronic until adulthood, which makes it difficult to charge parents with child abuse, she said.
In the South Carolina case, the mother followed nutritional guidelines set for her son by the state Department of Social Services, but the boy apparently got other food on his own while not under his mother’s supervision, Varner, the mother’s attorney said.
The boy has been placed in foster care, and Varner hasn’t been allowed to speak to him. Gray, the mother, has signed an agreement with a film documentary company for exclusive rights to her story and couldn’t comment for this article, Varner said.
“There’s a strong likelihood that this kid is going to school and could eat whatever he wanted to at school because you’ve got friends who will help him buy food or will give him their leftovers,” Varner said. “The big question is what is this kid doing when he’s not in mom’s care, custody and control?”
Greenville County Schools spokesman Oby Lyles declined to comment in response to that.
“This is not a case of a mother force-feeding a child,” Varner said. “If she had been holding him down and force-feeding him, sure, I can understand. But she doesn’t have the means to do it. She doesn’t have the money to buy the food to do it.”
The case could have ramifications beyond parental control over obesity, to other eating disorders, and even other behaviors not related to weight, Varner believes.
“What about the parents of every 16-year-old in Beverly Hills that’s too thin? Are they going to start arresting parents because their child is too thin?” he said.
“If your 14-year-old goes down the street and gets pregnant or breaks the neighbor’s window or steals the neighbor’s car, can the parents now be held criminally liable for that child’s acts as well?”
Jolene Puffer, a personal trainer in Asheville, N.C., said the problem, often, is parents “loving their kids to death,” especially in low-income families where food is one of the few things they can afford to give their children.
But too often, she said, school officials and doctors are “not sounding the alarm” when they should.
Puffer took one local family as a volunteer project and helped a 16-year-old boy who weighed 434 pounds to lose 110 pounds, while his mother lost more than 80 pounds and his sister shed nearly 50.
A social services counselor had recommended that the boy apply for Medicare, which Puffer said could have set him up as a lifelong disability case.
Puffer faults the social services agencies and schools for not doing more to help obese children.
“For the last year of their life, I have been their only advocate,” she said.
States haven’t been inactive in trying to combat childhood obesity, though, according to a report released this month by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
For example, 20 states have passed requirements for schools to do body mass index screenings or other weight-related tests of children and adolescents, up from four states five years ago, according to the report, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America.”
But it says although every state requires physical education in schools, the requirements “are often limited, not enforced, or do not meet adequate quality standards.”
The same report says 30 percent of children in 30 states age 10-17 are overweight or obese, with the rate hitting a high of 44.4 percent in Mississippi.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of obese children age 6-11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, while the rate for adolescents more than tripled.
Ron Jones, a corporate wellness expert based in Atlanta and Los Angeles, uses the phrase “child obesity is child abuse” in his promotional materials and says the nation as a whole has turned its head the other way when it comes to accepting that concept.
“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,” he said.
The difficulty with prosecuting such cases, according to Richard Balnave, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, is that most state laws require that the child’s health be in imminent danger for criminal charges to be filed, and the parent must be capable of helping the child but doesn’t take the necessary action. Obesity in children, while potentially dangerous, does not generally put a child in imminent danger, he said.
Supreme Court rulings have recognized the right of parents to raise their children how they see fit, Balnave said, but not to the point that the child’s health is endangered.
The arrest warrant in the Jerri Gray case alleges that her son’s weight was “serious and threatening to his health” and that she placed him “at an unreasonable risk of harm.”
Virginia Williamson, general counsel for the South Carolina Department of Social Services, said her agency petitioned the Family Court for custody of the 16-year-old, “because of information from health-care providers that he was at risk of serious harm because his mother was not meeting his medical needs.”
The department “would not take action based on a child’s weight alone,” she said, but only in “cases where health-care professionals believe a child is at risk of harm because a parent is neglecting to provide necessary medical care.”
Gray failed to appear at a Family Court hearing in which her child was to be turned over to foster care, according to a warrant issued in May. Police later found her with the boy in Baltimore County, Md., and took her back to South Carolina, where she was released on a $50,000 bond, her attorney said.
Talk about a sticky situation. I’ll make my comments in a minute, but just to give you an idea of the varying opinions on the topic, I give you some selected remarks from a message board discussion going on as I type this: “yes,” “no,” “maybe.” Of more substance (edited for spelling, grammar, and brevity; some content NSFW):
Yeah, obesity is not a black-and-white term. There would have to be a precise defintion.
In the article posted, yes. Not in every case. I think there are issues of income and parental knowledge that do come into play.
It does not take knowledge to see fat. Really fat fat. So, at some point, you have to take responsibility and get help if you can’t handle it.
(Food as Entertainment)
I think that from my generation to the present (there are many in between!) I have witnessed the transition of food from being something you ate hastily, so that you could go out and play, to being a pastime in and of itself. There is, I would venture a guess, far more eating for pleasure than for pure sustenance.
Combine that with the fact that kids today usually have much more access to food than kids did in my generation. You never went to the kitchen to just get something without asking your parents first. Mom always knew what was in her refrigerator and what was missing. There were always special things in the house “for guests only” that we never touched. Restaurants were a treat and not a way of life. Now, with parents out of the home most of the time, kids fend for themselves and parents simply replenish the supply on a regular basis without thought to what and how much has been consumed.
There was actually a certain “discipline” about the use of food. You didn’t take without asking, and when it was put in front of you, you were expected not to waste it even if you didn’t like the taste. There was, in a way, a certain measure of respect for food that is missing today. Portions are enormous. We grab more than we can eat and throw away more than we consume without a thought to the waste.
Add to this that the average teen has more money in his/her pocket than I carried as an adult. This has to do with access, as well. They are able to go out and buy their own food at will and a lot of that food is relatively cheap and definitely fattening.
It can’t be easy for a parent, single or otherwise, but when the scales are tipping a quarter ton, there has to be an assignment of blame.
I think its more stupidity than abuse. The mother claims she doesn’t have time to cook because of her hours, so the kid eats unhealthy. She could just cook for him one day for the entire week so he has a healthier meal every day, but then again he might just eat the week’s worth of food in one day.
It’s neglect, plain and simple. No different then if the kid had the flu and she told him to fuck off instead of going to a doctor. Worse actually because buying some veggies instead of cookies is a lot easier then going to a doctor. I don’t want to hear that she doesn’t know any better because that’s bullshit. Maybe she doesn’t know the ideal macronutrient breakdown, but she sure as shit knows that broccoli is better than an ice cream sandwich.
That’s sad. And grossly irresponsible as a parent. Parents like this piss me off to no end. If you don’t teach your child the value of certain things like exercise and nutrition (to name a few), how else are they supposed to learn? Good job setting your child up for a lifetime of heartache, lady.
And so on and so forth. There are, of course, several tangents stemming from this discussion, namely rising health insurance premiums, various taxation methods, (un)restricted procreation (think Idiocracy), and (lack of) sex education.
There are two subjective metrics in play here, neither of which has a definitive boundary: obesity and abuse. Obesity has little to do with actual weight as two hundred pounds is vastly different depending on body style, body fat percentage, body fat deposit disposition, activity level, training protocols, and several other variables. My two hundred-plus pounds are far different from those on a five-foot-three, sedentary female. Sure, there’s a trigger in our minds that says “fat” or “not fat,” but it’s different for everyone, and in the case of the above article, I’m pretty sure all of us would say “fat.” The problem is how to standardize that trigger.
As for abuse, it’s the same as obesity. Some people consider Olympic-calibre gymnastics to be abusive while others think it’s the epitome of youth athletics. A bruise or broken bone suffered during a rec league soccer game is different from those suffered at the hands of a deranged parent. People can scream “case by case” until they’re blue in the face, but in today’s society, that’s not going to last very long without some debilitating legal implications.
So, does childhood obesity equate to child abuse? If you know me outside this blog, then you know my answer. Here, though, I’ll refer to yet other commenters:
The more that I think about it, the more that I think that it’s not about education as much as it is about personal responsibility. Talking about sex obviously. I would venture to say that at least 99.999% of pregnant teenagers knew prior to their actions that they could get pregnant. The issue is that they don’t fear the consequences of those actions. This is because we (society and especially the government) have too many crutches in place to support this behavior. There is no sense of survival of the fittest. They know that if something happens they can always fall back on the government to take care of them. Sad.
It’s also more and more common for parents to accept this as the way of the world. I’m not even old, but when I was in high school, parents would kick some ass if their kid was fucking around. I’m sure it was 1,000 times more strict for someone much older than me growing up. Now parents coddle their kids and blame everything on someone else.
It never ceases to amaze me that you have to get a license to drive. You have to register to vote. You have to put a license on your fucking BICYCLE in most cities. But any motherfucking dipshit who can fuck is allowed to have as many kids as they want and fuck them up with very little consequence.
Enough from me. Your turn.