The idea of a child’s weight problems or sedentary lifestyle being an abuse/neglect issue is not new. Doctors and therapists have expressed this sentiment as early as the 1970s. With the growing childhood obesity epidemic, a number of states are now even grappling with the removal of severely overweight children from their home. (Barnett, 2009)

While we do not support CPS removal except in the most dire of situations (and only after all other methods of intervention have failed), let us explore some of the evidence that supports classifying this issue as a matter of child neglect. Once again, our goal is not to stigmatize families with weight problems, but simply to represent this issue fairly and accurately in relation to other types of disadvantaged environments.

Why a child’s obesity could be considered child neglect

The child obesity epidemic fits the textbook definition of neglect:

  1. It’s a condition that leads to substantial immediate and long-term risks to a child’s welfare (see the first page of this chapter).

  1. Cumulative research shows that obesity is neither a genetic disorder nor unpreventable – it can be directly tied to lifestyle habits. Even when genetics might play some role, it is a minor one at that (a few extremely rare genetic diseases excluded), and evidence shows lifestyle and behavioral habits promoted by parents will override any genetic markers toward obesity that a child might have.

  1. Parents have the RESPONSIBILITY and DUTY to provide a healthy environment for their children. Failing to ensure your children receive a healthy balance of diet and exercise is just as much of a care-neglect issue as it would be to deny them food or medical care, fail to provide any type of education, or let them play unsupervised in a dangerous environment.

Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America, says that since the health consequences often don’t arise until adulthood, it’s hard to charge parents with child abuse in the matter. (Barnett, 2009) But that doesn’t make the situation any less harmful. We have no interest in seeing parents criminalized for their overweight children, but we do want to see them take this issue seriously.