Obesity as child abuse

HE was so obese he didn’t so much walk as twist his trunk one way then the other, forcing one leg then the other forward, and I watched him with sympathy as he laboured from the bakery’s door to his car. It was a sad sight, but what I saw next shocked me. The fellow handed a bottle of Coke and a bag containing at least a pie to a girl, apparently his daughter, sitting in the car, and while I could see only her head and shoulders it was clear she too was extremely obese. The girl was finishing a pie as he arrived, apparently his second trip, and when I left the shop a minute or so later she’d embarked on the new pie.

Probably in her early teens, and I felt so sad. The impact of obesity on her life must have been severe, physically and psychologically. It seemed that her only hope was direct intervention and a program overseen by a medical doctor, a dietitian and a psychologist. Without intervention, a parent who has allowed a child to become seriously obese is unlikely to be able to manage the almost inevitable diabetes and other illnesses.

Surely, I thought, encouraging or allowing a child to become so obese is child abuse.

A parent who doesn’t feed a child enough will be deemed to be guilty of child abuse, or neglect, yet there seems to be no such possibility for a parent who feeds a child too much, even though the impact on the child of obesity may be at least as severe and persistent as malnourishment. The Crimes Act, section 43A, is clear enough: ‘‘A person who has parental responsibility for a child, and who, without reasonable excuse, intentionally or recklessly fails to provide the child with the necessities of life, is guilty of an offence if the failure causes a danger of death or of serious injury to the child.’’ Maximum penalty five years’ jail.

Lawyers could argue about whether a good diet is a necessity of life, but surely providing a child with a non-life-threatening diet is a necessity of life. And surely the old line that ‘‘it runs in the family’’ is no longer reasonable excuse. And ethnic background and culture cannot explain away the threat to the child.

The pressing concern, though, is the welfare of the child, not punishment of a parent, and the process of rescuing a child from abuse or neglect is clear in the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act. Section 23 says a child is at risk of significant harm if, among other things, his or her basic physical or psychological needs are not being met, if he or she has been physically ill-treated, if he or she is at risk of suffering serious psychological harm; section 27 requires people working in health, welfare, education and police services to report a child they believe is at risk of significant harm; and section 36 requires the director-general of the Department of Community Services to give paramount consideration to the immediate welfare and well-being of the child.

Section 38A, under the heading ‘‘Parental responsibility contracts’’, is especially pertinent. The contract between the director-general and a parent requires the parent to improve his or her parenting skills and to accept more responsibility for the child, and contract provisions may include undergoing treatment for substance abuse (food is a substance, I suppose) and participation in courses aimed at improving parenting skills. The case I described earlier is extreme, and it is possible, I suppose, that the father was already on a parental responsibility contract. If he was it was not working.

But children who are less obese are at very significant risk of physical and psychological harm and in many of these cases I suspect a parental responsibility contract would be more likely to achieve a reversal of the child’s decline than in instances of extreme obesity. Yes, there are all manner of concerns, but, remember, the child’s well-being is paramount.

Is allowing a child to become seriously obese child abuse? Is such a parent less liable than a parent of a malnourished child?

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