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Is Child Obesity Neglect? Can It Cause Parents to Lose Custody?

By Caleb Groos | Last updated on

The image most associated with parental neglect is an undernourished child. The recent case of a South Carolina mother and son, however, brings to the forefront an issue more states will be grappling with: can a child's obesity related health concerns result in a parent's loss of custody?

Medical neglect leading to loss of parental rights does not always have to involve religious parents who opt to refuse cancer treatment for their kids. While the case of Daniel Hauser brought child health, parental rights and religious beliefs into conflict, the case of Alexander Draper in South Carolina presents a question that may become more common -- can a child's obesity can signal parental neglect worthy of taking the child out of the home?

The short answer is that yes, it sometimes can. As reported by the AP, 49 year old mother Jerri Gray was arrested yesterday for violating a custody order. Instead of appearing at an ordered hearing with the Department of Social Services (DSS), she fled the state with her son. As indicated by WYFF Greenville, DSS was set to remove Gray's 14 year old son from her home due to medical neglect. He reportedly weighs 555 pounds.

WFYY quotes Gray's attorney as confirming that the child's was to be taken from the home due to his mother's alleged failure to address his medical needs.

Generally, sever neglect, including medical neglect, can result in a loss of parental rights. As in custody battle between parents, when the state seeks to remove a child from the home, the primary consideration is the best interest of the child. One commentator notes that courts in New York, California, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas have found morbid obesity to constitute neglect.

It should be noted, however, that most often the state is not just going to come and take a child because they are obese. Typically, at the point of removal, a court has already ordered the parent to comply with some sort of treatment plan for the child (such as exercise, keeping a food log, etc.) and the parent has refused to comply.

The same commentator wonders about the extent to which parents can control a child's obesity, and whether differing levels of obesity in certain ethic groups would further increase their overrepresentation in foster care systems.

The health of the child remains the ultimate concern. And there is no question that morbid obesity poses an enormous health risk on children. Like all custody cases, the specifics of the family and child will vary greatly from child to child. Unfortunately for obesity cases, however, the responsibility of the parent is much less clearly defined than in cases of outright refusal to give a child desperately needed medicine.

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