Jerri Gray, a woman charged with criminal neglect for allowing her 14-year-old son Alexander Draper to get to 555 pounds, tried her best to help the teen lose weight, her lawyer told USA Today.
In June, after her son tipped the scales at over a quarter of a ton, the Travelers Rest, South Carolina, resident was arrested for criminal neglect and Alexander was put into foster care. Her case has pushed the debate on whether to legislate childhood obesity into the national spotlight.
"If she’s found guilty on those criminal charges, you have set a precedent that opens Pandora’s box," Jerri’s lawyer Grant Varner said. "Where do you go next?"
History of Child Obesity Cases
Last year’s report from the Child Welfare League of America found that six other states, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Mexico andCalifornia , have all considered the problem. Each one, save California, changed their state laws and made morbid obesity a form of medical neglect. Only two of those cases were criminal though, and no parents went to jail for either. For the case in New York, nutritional counseling, cooking classes and exercise were ordered for the 261-pound teen girl. Linda Spears, vice-president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America told USA Today that criminal charges should be a last resort.
"I think I would draw the line at a place where there are serious health consequences for the child and efforts to work with the family have repeatedly failed," she said. Instead, a consistent regimen that the court can monitor is best, Linda said.
Alexander had been assigned a diet by the state Department of Social Services, but he was able to get food on his own when he was away from his mother, said Grant. Since the child has been in foster care, Grant has spoken to him.
"There’s a strong likelihood that this kid is going to school and could eat whatever he wanted to at school, because you’ve got friends who will help him buy food or will give him their leftovers," Grant said. "The big question is: What is this kid doing when he’s not in Mom’s care, custody and control?" The school district that Alexander attends did not comment.
Jerri made an agreement with a film company for exclusive rights to her story, and she could not give comment for the story.
"This is not a case of a mother force-feeding a child," said Grant. "If she had been holding him down and force-feeding him, sure, I can understand. But she doesn’t have the means to do it. She doesn’t have the money to buy the food to do it."
Is Obesity a Form of Abuse?
Jerri and Alexander’s case highlights the way that some people have begun to think about childhood obesity.
Corporate wellness expert Ron Jones has a saying: "child obesity is child abuse." He told USA Today that Americans aren’t ready to accept that concept.
"If you gave your child a drug, you’d be held in the court. But if you kill them with food, that seems to be acceptable," he said.
Part of the reason that state governments can’t get behind Ron and others that agree with him is that child abuse is defined by putting a child in imminent danger and obesity, while it has been shown to lead to health problems, generally does not fit the bill, said University of Virgina School of Law professor Richard Balnave.
Jerri’s arrest warrant stated that Alexander’s weight was "serious and threatening to his health" and that she was putting him in "an unreasonable risk of harm."
The Department of Social Services’ counsel said that Alexander was taken from Jerri "because of information from health care providers that he was at risk of serious harm because his mother was not meeting his medical needs," and that the department "would not take action based on a child’s weight alone."
Jerri didn’t show up to her family court hearing where her son was to be entered into foster court in May. She was later found in Baltimore County, Maryland, where she was arrested, taken back to South Carolina and released on $50,000 bond.