Obesity Is Becoming A Popular Issue In Custody Battles


Fights over which parent will get custody of a child after a divorce can turn nasty for any number of reasons—some fair, some just plain crazy—but there's one point of contention that's quickly finding its way into custody battles across the country: obesity. Legal experts are saying, according to the Wall Street Journal, that fingers are increasingly being pointed by one parent claiming that the other parent is allowing a child to become obese or is not providing the child with proper nutrition. Douglas Gardner, a family lawyer in Arizona, said this:

It's come up quite a bit in the last couple of years. Typically, one parent is accusing the other of putting a child at risk of developing diabetes or heart disease—or saying that the child is miserable because he's getting made fun of at school.

Evidence to support these claims can vary. Sometimes it's a child's documented (though not necessarily sever) obesity, but other times it's as simple as claiming a parent is serving too much junk or fast food. And in another interesting twist, some parents have even been accused of being unfit to care for their children because they are too obese themselves.

This isn't the first time lifestyle issues have been raised in custody fights. Family law specialist Jeff Wittenbrink points out,

It used to be constantly and consistently about smoking. It's only been recently where one parent thinks their kid's not active enough, is gaining weight and eating sugary food.

So what, besides our growing national obsession with obesity and its health effects, has been driving this trend? There have been several high-profile cases involving obesity—including one in which a 555-pound teenage boy was taken from his mother—which have drawn people's attention to the possibility of introducing obesity accusations into custody fights. Plus, this summer, David Ludwig, an obesity expert in Boston, co-wrote a widely read article arguing that, "in severe cases of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable."

Child custody laws have also shifted, making obesity claims more relevant. In the past, it used to be that mothers almost always received sole custody. Now it's far more common that mothers and fathers are given some type of shared custody arrangement. In determining how to divide up a child's time between two parents, a judge often must weigh the merits of each parent, which can obviously be difficult. States have stepped in on the matter to some extent:

To help judges, many states have added specific criteria to look at when considering the best interests of a child. Among the issues that are increasingly coming up: whether and to what degree a child is eating well and exercising.

This might assist judges in some ways, but it also opens the door to arguing about a child's (or parent's) weight, regardless of whether a child is actually in any real health danger. But does raising this issue in cases where there is no clear danger to a child really affect anything? Well, of course, it might do some damage to the family—and especially the child—but that can be true of almost any accusation in a custody battle. At least so far, there's not much evidence that it's exerting undue influence on judges. As lawyer Jonathan Merel explains,

"If one side is scratching to find something wrong with the other person, the courts might not give it the same weight. If all things are equal but one person only feeds fatty foods and the children have weight problems, I think it can become an important distinguishing factor."

For the moment, when a child is obese or a parent isn't giving them ideal nutrition, lawyers say it's rare that these issues (unless they are extremely severe) will "trump both a child's right to have a close relationship with a parent and a parent's right to raise a child in the manner he or she sees fit." That seems like it's as it should be, but it will be interesting to see whether this is a passing legal trend or whether it's something that will gain more and more traction, which could certainly be the case if our obesity epidemic continues to expand at its current rate.

Obesity Fuels Custody Fights [Wall Street Journal]

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