Jerri Gray, a single mother who says her child gained weight while she was away from the home working overtime to provide for her family, was arrested and charged with criminal neglect because her 14-year-old son, Alexander Draper, weighs 555-pounds.
“This is not a case of a mother force-feeding a child,” Gray’s lawyer, Grant Varner, told USA Today. “If she had been holding him down and force-feeding him, sure, I can understand. But she doesn’t have the means to do it. She doesn’t have the money to buy the food to do it.”
Born and raised in South Carolina, Alexander grew to reach a dangerous 555 pounds by the age of 14. That’s when law enforcement stepped in. Alexander’s mother was charged with unlawful neglect of a child for not intervening when he began gaining too much weight.
Gray, released from jail Monday on $50,000 bond, says she does not have enough money to get her son the treatment he needs.
Alexander is currently in the custody of the Department of Social Services, who in a statement said they only intervene when “health care professionals believe a child is at risk of harm.”
Jerri Gray and her defense attorney appeared on The Early Show on Nov. 1 to discuss the case.
Asked how Alexander’s weight gain got so out of control, Gray said, “Well, a lot of times it had to do with lifestyle. A lot of times I had to work full-time second shift, or full-time, third shift — and I wasn’t home a lot.”
Gray said she tried monitoring her son’s diet, but it was difficult since she had to sleep between working long hours.
Asked if there are steps she could have taken earlier, Gray said, “When I had a second shift job, I would’ve rather been home, so that I could’ve spent more time focusing on preparing more low-fat type meals.”
Gray believes her son needs to be with her, not in the custody of the state. “Mentally he needs to be with me. We both need to be included together in whatever program that they have to offer, so that we both can benefit from it. So as our lives go on together, then we will have learned how to control it and keep it under control.”
Gray insisted she followed the guidelines set for her son’s care by the Department of Social Services, but Alexander had most likely been eating whatever he wanted when he was at school, or at home while his mother worked the late-night shift at her job.
Gray’s lawyer says finding his client guilty could open a Pandora’s box of charges against parents of morbidly obese children.
Such cases are difficult to prosecute because most state laws require a child’s health be in imminent danger for criminal charges to be filed, according to University of Virginia law professor Richard Balnave. Obesity, while dangerous, is not considered an imminent threat, he says.
So far, all of the states to hear such cases, except California, have expanded their state’s legal definition of medical neglect to include morbid obesity, but no parent accused of this form of child abuse has been sentenced to serve time behind bars.
Of course, Alexander deserves a fair chance at a healthy life, but criminalizing his mother and making tax payers financially responsible for a child whose mother has worked hard to provide for him, seems like a heavy-handed and expensive way to address this serious issue.
Court mandated intervention for this family? Definitely.
Jail for the mom? Definitely not. –kathleen cross