Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past thirty years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of children aged 6-11 in our nation who were obese increased from 7 % in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. The percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 19% over the same period. Childhood obesity has both short-term and long-term effects on the health and well-being of these children.
As the obesity of children is increasing, so is the role obesity plays in the child-custody battles in our nation today. In custody lawsuits, legal experts say parents are using accusations of poor nutrition and obesity as an attempt to persuade judges that their children are receiving poor care in the hands of ex-spouses or soon to be ex-spouses. Typically in these cases, one parent accuses the other of placing a child at risk of developing diet related diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease. A parent may even go as far as saying that a child is miserable because he is being teased at school because of his weight.
Not only are parents using the obesity of the child in an attempt to gain custody, but they are using the obesity of the other parent as well, by saying that the parent is too obese to perform basic child care functions.
In determining child custody, judges have, in the past, took into consideration what is in the best interest of the child. Recently, however, some states are altering that criteria to include the physical well-being of the child as well as the emotional well-being of the child in determining who is granted custody.
According to June Carbone, a family-law expert and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, thirty years ago, custody decisions were relatively straight forward, in that, in most cases, the mother received sole custody of the children, and the father received limited visitation rights. With the recent trend of shared custody and child-support arrangements, the courts often factor in the strengths and weaknesses of each parent, and as a result, custody battles have grown more frequent and contentious. Carbone stated that “people can always find another thing to fight over.”
To help judges determine child custody, many states have added specific criteria to look at when considering the best interests of a child. More frequently, one of the issues coming up is that of whether and to what degree a child is eating well and exercising. Most family law experts agree that obesity claims have to be fairly severe in order to 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.