Childhood Obesity: Who’s to Blame?

December 15th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

Some courts and child welfare experts are beginning to hold parents responsible for their overweight kids, saying it’s a matter of neglect and endangerment.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

You are what you eat.

But are you also responsible for what your children eat?

A South Carolina woman recently lost custody of her 14 year-old son after being charged with criminal child neglect when the boy’s weight hit 555 pounds. The arrest warrant for mother Jerri Gray alleged that she placed her child in “an unreasonable risk of harm” by allowing his weight to become “serious and threatening to his health.” The boy was put in foster care.

When the same issue arose in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Mexico and Indiana, state courts ruling in the cases of morbidly obese children declared they were in fact victims of neglect.

“It’s unfair to blame solely the parents when there’s a myriad of other factors influencing a child’s weight,” argues the director of a university weight-management center, pointing to genetic predisposition, socioeconomic status, and environmental factors including access to parks and playgrounds.

A child welfare expert responds, “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.”

The attorney for the South Carolina mother says convicting her on criminal charges for her son’s obesity will open a Pandora’s Box of issues way beyond the immediate issue.

“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?” the attorney asked. “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?”

Tell us what you think: Should parents be criminally responsible for their obese children? How far should the law go in holding parents directly responsible for any of their children’s behaviors?