It’s scary to think the state has the ability to remove a child from a home simply because he or she is obese. More frightening is that the state has actually exercised this power.
Jerri Gray is the mother of Alexander Draper, a 555-pound 14-year-old boy now in foster care. Gray was arrested in June and charged with criminal neglect. The arrest warrant alleges Gray put her son “at an unreasonable risk of harm” due to his weight, which was “serious and threatening to his health.”
This South Carolina case has garnered national media attention and public reaction has been wide-ranging. Some think this goes well beyond the state’s role in child protection, while others believe this is a step in the right direction. Ron Jones, a corporate wellness expert, likened obesity to providing children with illicit drugs and believes, “child obesity is child abuse.”
Beyond the totalitarian undertones, in a country where two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, placing obese children in foster care hardly seems like an appropriate solution. Legal action against parents with severely obese children is a growing trend. In the last year obesity has played a role in 20 child protection cases in the U.K. Here in the U.S., several states now include morbid obesity in their definition of medical neglect, including Texas, New Mexico, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York.
The South Carolina Department of Social Services had previously given Gray dietary guidelines for her son in an effort to control his weight. They sought custody of Alexander “because of information from health care providers that he was at risk of serious harm because his mother was not meeting his medical needs,” USA Today reported.
This is a very slippery slope. Childhood obesity puts children at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, various cancers, sleep apnea, and a host of other co-morbidities that are rarely imminently life threatening. Risk factors for heart disease don’t turn into a heart attack overnight in children, and that's why the state needs to focus on long term prevention efforts through physical activity and nutrition programs, and improving the built environment. I’m stunned when proponents of this type of legal intervention cite the state’s involvement for cases of child starvation, where children face immediate life or death situations. Besides, how obese is too obese? Who decides? We also know that many overweight and obese children are from low-income families. Many parents use food to provide their children with pleasure, when they have little resources to provide them with additional forms of entertainment or fun.
In an interview with CBS News, Gray said she didn’t have enough money to pay for the treatments the state had recommended. She didn’t have time to prepare fresh, low-fat meals because she often works a double shift and is not home at dinner time with Alexander. When probed on whether she thought her son was getting the care he needed in his new home, Gray said she didn’t know because she wasn’t able to speak with him. Gray added that she would have liked to have been included in the intervention efforts so that she and her son could stay together, and work together to control his weight. We don’t know how Alexander is doing at the foster home weight-wise, but he has told family members that he misses his mother.
Jerri Gray’s case is extremely un-American. In a place where people cry “nanny state” at the idea of a one-cent tax on their soda, it’s hard to believe Alexander was removed from his home and is now in foster care.
“If she’s found guilty on those criminal charges, you have set a precedent that opens Pandora’s box,” Gray’s lawyer said. “Where do you go next?”