As I was preparing my new syllabus, I came across a case that forced me to think about the extent to which parents should bear responsibility for their children’s obesity. It is well-known that obesity places children at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, and possibly cancer later in life. Sixteen percent of American children and adolescents are obese; another sixteen percent are overweight. The medical profession has warned that, as a result of the rise in childhood obesity, the current generation of American children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents.
I believe that parents should make efforts to provide their children with healthy foods and regular exercise. However, I question whether parents who do not control their children’s weight problem should lose custody of their children to the state? Are we willing to hold that a parent who does little to address his child’s obesity has neglected his child in the same way as if he had failed to provide him with adequate nourishment or supervision? Courts and child welfare agencies are grappling wth this issue. In a recent case, In re Brittany T., a New York Family Court ordered the removal of a morbidly obese child from her parents’ home based on the parents’ consistent failure to comply with the court’s order that they take her to the gym 2-3 times a week and attend a nutrition and education program, among other things. Although the case was reversed on appeal, the New York Appellate Division did not hold that child obesity can never be grounds for neglect, but rather that, in this particular case, the Department of Social Services had not shown that the parents had willfully violated the terms of the court’s order. In fact, although Brittany had gained 25 pounds in five months, the evidence showed that her parents had taken her to the gym at least once a week, had met with a nutritionist, and had kept a food log for her. Yes, the food log reflected that Brittany ate “lots of chicken nuggets, lots of pop tarts, hot dogs, and pizza,” but the parents had maintained the log, as ordered.