In 2009, a South Carolina mother named Jerri Gray was charged with criminally neglecting her fourteen-year-old son, Alexander Draper. The State removed her son from her custody and placed him in foster care. Even as of August 2011, two years later, Gray's charges were still pending and Draper remained with his aunt.
It is a well-known and sobering reality that child protective systems across the United States often must separate children from their abusive or neglectful parents in order to protect them from the harm inevitably caused by this type of home environment. Yet, in Ms. Gray's case, her negligent behavior was not of a kind traditionally associated with child neglect. When removed from his mother's custody, Alexander Draper weighed 555 pounds - well beyond a healthy weight for his age. Ms. Gray's arrest came shortly after she missed a custody hearing, which was scheduled after doctors had expressed concerns to social services about her son's weight.
Though the story of Jerri Gray and her son may seem unusual, it is not the only one of its kind. Numerous state agencies around the country have begun to remove obese children from their parents' custody. As concerns about childhood obesity continue to grow, courts across the nation will have to struggle with the difficult legal and moral questions that arise in these scenarios. The idea that the government can reach into the traditionally private sphere of the family and remove a child merely on the grounds that the child is overweight is difficult to justify and the lack of a consistent legal framework further complicates the matter.
This Note considers the increasing need for state courts to apply child abuse and neglect laws to issues of childhood obesity and proposes practical reforms that will resolve the legal ambiguities that currently exist in the system. The system that we propose suggests state intervention in cases where parents negligently fail to address the medical needs of their morbidly obese children.
Shauneen M. Garrahan & Andrew W. Eichner,
Tipping the Scale: A Place for Childhood Obesity in the Evolving Legal Framework of Child Abuse and Neglect,
Yale J. Health Pol'y L. & Ethics
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjhple/vol12/iss2/3