Can You Face Criminal Charges for Letting a Child Become Obese?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of children who are 6 to 11 years old and 21 percent of teens from 12 to 19 years old were obese in 2012. The negative impact excess weight has on a child's life and health is well documented, and some parents have found themselves the subjects of child-protective services investigations because of their children's obesity. Unfortunately, parents of overweight children may also have to worry about being hit with criminal charges. Here's what you need to know about this issue.

Child Abuse and Neglect

There are a couple of ways parents may find themselves being charged criminally for letting their children gain excessive amounts of weight. The first way depends on what the state considers to be child abuse and neglect.

The minimum standard for child abuse and neglect according to the federal government is any act or lack of action on the parent's part that results in physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, exploitation, or death of the child. The definition also includes any acts or lack of action that may result in imminent risk of serious injury or harm.

As mentioned previously, excess weight has a negative impact on a child's health and quality of life. According to the World Health Organization, overweight children tend to remain so into adulthood and suffer long-term health problems as a result, such as the onset of systemic issues like heart disease and diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and an increased risk of developing certain types of cancers.

However, kids may also develop these problems in childhood as a result of their excess weight. A three-year-old toddler from Texas was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2015, the youngest person to do so. The child weighed 77 pounds, the same as the average 11 year old, something the doctors say significantly contributed to the onset of the disease.

In this type of situation where the child's heath is immediately impacted by obesity, the state child-protection agency may view this as an imminent risk of harm. The agency may intervene in the situation, temporarily or permanently remove the child from the home, or recommend child abuse and neglect charges be brought against the parents if they fail to correct the problem.

Medical Neglect

Another way parents may be criminally charged for their children's obesity is through medical-neglect laws. Parents are legally responsible for providing their children with adequate medical and dental care (and psychiatric care in some cases). Failure to do so may lead to parents being charged with medical neglect and having their kids taken away.

A variety of parental conduct may be considered medical neglect, but one that could lead to trouble for parents of obese children is failing to adhere to a health provider's recommendations regarding a treatable condition. If the doctor tells you to place the child on a diet and exercise program because he or she weighs too much, and you fail to do so, you could face criminal charges. You might also face charges of medical neglect if child-protective services recommend you take action on your child's health, but you don't.

A South Carolina woman was arrested and charged with criminal neglect in 2009 because her 14-year-old son weighed 555 pounds. The mother claims she tried to help her son lose weight but that he gained access to food when he went to school. The boy was eventually put into foster care by the state, and the mother spent 5 weeks in jail.

Childhood obesity, parental control over children, and what constitutes abuse and neglect are complex issues that often don't have a clear-cut answer. If child-protective services is recommending charges be brought against you for your child's weight, it's best to consult a criminal-defense attorney for advice on the best way to handle the situation.