The Obesity-and-Custody Issue

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, family-law practitioners and legal experts say that parents in custody battles are increasingly blaming the other parent for the health issues of their children, including poor nutrition and obesity. The evidence in each case varies. For example, in some instances, a parent is too overweight to perform proper parental duties, thus leading the child to incur a similarly unhealthy lifestyle. In others, the child’s obesity is evidence that the parent allows the child to consume an excess amount of soft drinks and fast food. Parents are using this evidence to gain leverage in custody battles while placing the blame on the other as to why their child is grossly overweight.

In New York, as in several other states, the question of custody centers on what is in the best interest of the child. The best interest standard focuses both on the emotional well-being of a child as well as on the child’s physical health.

As the percentage of obesity in children rises, the obesity-and-custody issue  surfaces as a frequent battle between parents. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17%, or about 12.5 million of our country’s children and teens, are obese. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that this number has tripled since the 1980s.

The issue “used to be constantly and consistently about smoking;” says family specialist Jeff Wittenbrink, “it’s only recently where one parent thinks their child is not active enough, is gaining weight and eating sugary food.” Parents of obese children can now be prosecuted for neglect. Extreme examples include a 555 pound 14-year old boy from South Carolina, and a 200 pound third-grader from Ohio. Both children were removed from their respective homes and placed in foster care. The children’s parents were consequently charged with child neglect.

According to June Carbone, a family law expert and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, the use of obesity as leverage in child custody disputes has gradually shifted child custody law. The trend has moved towards states establishing specific criteria when determining the best interest of a child, reports the Wall Street Journal. In terms of physical health, the trend will have judges analyzing whether a child is up to date on vaccines, exercises and maintains a healthy diet.

On a personal note, I think it is imperative for parents to model a healthy lifestyle. While I’m not one to place blame, irresponsible parenting enables overweight children. By failing to manage a child’s diet and exercise routine, parents of overweight children are knowingly placing their children at risk of life-threatening conditions. Such conditions include diabetes, cholesterol problems, hypertension, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea, not to mention a myriad of self-esteem complexes. While some critics describe the proposed criteria as “over reaching,” I am in full support. When determining what is in the best interest of a child, it is imperative for a judge to assess whether a child is exercising, eating a balanced diet, and whether the parent establishes a health-conscious home.