Parents and Legal Vulnerability

The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being II collected information on 5,800 child maltreatment cases that were investigated in the U.S. in 2008. In this context, childhood was defined as anything from birth to age 17.

University of Illinois researchers took a closer look and found that in the preschool age group, the obesity rate was three times as high as in the general population. Journalist Sharita Forrest elucidated:

Children at risk of abuse/neglect are already predisposed to a host of physical and psychological problems, and obesity may add to those burdens.

[M]ost of the children in the study were living with their biological parents following an abuse/neglect investigation, often in impoverished neighborhoods that were bereft of safe places for children to play outdoors and of grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutritious food.

Of course in cases of extreme and repeated abuse, children are removed from their parents’ custody and placed in foster homes. It may help in some ways, but those homes also tend to be in similarly deprived neighborhoods.

Who is guilty of what?

The world had already seen the publication of a Yale University, University of Texas, and Arizona State University study confirming the reality of food addiction. That brought up a side issue — the culpability of parents with untreated food addiction who pass the condition along to their offspring. A school of thought arose holding that enabling obesity is, in and of itself, a form of child abuse, and that parents who allow their children to become morbidly obese ought to be prosecuted.

Dr. Pretlow had some questions about the matter:

If a child were in a house where drugs were being used, child protection services would certainly be warranted, especially if the child were addicted to the drugs. The Yale study shows that compulsive eaters, such as severely obese individuals, share the same addiction mechanism in the brain as drug addicts. In light of this striking similarity, shouldn’t severely obese kids be removed from their parents, analogous to removing kids from drug houses?

One area of contention in thinking about this, as Dr. Pretlow went on to point out, is that children in drug-intensive or obesogenic environments do not necessarily perceive themselves to be in distress or danger. Often, kids in these situations are not desperately unhappy, and certainly not preparing to run away or kill themselves. The justification for state intervention is difficult to prove, especially in a purportedly free country.

Childhood Obesity News will look at some examples of how the law handles this in the U.S.A. and other English-speaking countries with legal systems descended from the Magna Carta.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obesity found to be higher in preschoolers suspected of being maltreated,”, 10/09/13
Photo credit: Izzie Button on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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