States Policing Parents of Children with Obesity

A single mother from South Carolina with limited income faces a harsh prison sentence for two felonies because of her child’s severe obesity. How and when should government agencies  protect children with obesity from medical neglect? These questions are generating intense controversy. In the Seton Hall Law Review, Elizabeth Ralston argues that removing a child from parental custody based on obesity is an ineffective solution. She adds that such an action is also unconstitutional unless there is an imminent danger of harm.

Should child welfare personnel take a child with severe obesity away from a parent? Should the parent be put in jail? As the consequences and severity of the obesity epidemic have become clearer, we often look for people to blame. Provocative measures have been considered and some have been enacted as laws to combat obesity. One such approach targets parents of children with severe obesity by defining it as a form of child neglect.

State intervention in the parent-child relationship is proper and constitutional when there is a risk of imminent harm to the child. Particularly in the case of children with severe obesity, this risk is difficult to define. Ralston argues that judicial intervention is a poor choice because removing a child from its parent fails to address obesity. No single method can combat childhood obesity, and while some intervention may be necessary, it should be accomplished with the least interference possible. Moreover, removing children from parental custody based solely on their weight may be unconstitutional. Child obesity programs must address socioeconomic and cultural considerations, and not further penalize the child or her family.

It’s ironic that our legal system can take action against families affected by obesity at the same time that we find ourselves in a paralyzing debate about food policies that might reduce or contribute to obesity.

Click here to read the Seton Hall Law Review article by Elizabeth Ralston. Click here to read about another point of view from David Ludwig of Children’s Hospital Boston.

Arrest icon © Abu Badali / Wikimedia Commons