You remember the case of the otherwise happy and healthy Colorado four-month-old denied health insurance for the “pre-existing condition” of obesity, right? The general reaction was one of rightful outrage, and the resulting backlash soon forced the insurance company to capitulate and change its policy on babies that are healthy but fat.
Rocky Mountain Health Plans’ denial of coverage to baby Alex is but symptomatic of a shift in the focus on childhood obesity to to direct anti-obesity fearmongering onto chubby babies — see here, here and here. Perhaps its this growing hysteria on whether chubby babies turn into fat adults that contributed to a Washington couple deliberately starving their infant baby and toddler daughter and feeding the baby laxatives in an effort to force her to lose weight. Brittainy and Samuel Labberton have been charged with third-degree criminal mistreatment, a felony, and are scheduled to be arraigned on Monday. Neither is in custody.
According to local news reports (here and here), it would appear as if Brittainy certainly suffers from severe mental health issues, quite possibly including an eating disorder. The baby was born in August, 2008 after Brittainy was induced at 38 weeks due to poor in utero weight gain, weighing 5 pounds, 4 ounces at birth. Court filings note that Brittainy was then diagnosed with postpartum depression with psychotic tendencies and that she had stopped taking medication for this shortly after the birth. A year later, when contacted by police, the 21-year-old mother “appeared emaciated,” said police detectives (I don’t want to give specifics here, but her reported height and weight indicates a BMI of 15, which is severely underweight). Because of the baby’s low birth weight, doctors told the Labbertons that she needed to be fed every few hours. The baby was hospitalized two months later after failing to gain sufficient weight. When questioned by hospital staff, the couple insisted the baby was just “fussy and threw up her food,” yet she thrived while hospitalized and began putting on weight. When told of her child’s progress, Brittainy was not pleased, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Carol Spoor.
“Instead, Brittainy complained, ‘Oh my God she’s fat’ and ‘I have a fat baby,’” Spoor stated, recounting the December 2008 interview. “Brittainy insisted that (the girl) should be under the 50th percentile in weight, not over it.
“She indicated that her husband has a weight problem and she does not want her girls to be fat.”
Child welfare workers pulled the girl from the home. Despite the admitted and remorseless neglect of their baby daughter, court social services didn’t move to take immediate custody of their toddler daughter until a day later and only because Brittainy said she felt she would kill herself and the child. According to court reports, when the older girl arrived at the foster home, she was “ravenously hungry” and eating so fast that she nearly choked on her food. The couple were nonetheless allowed to see the baby three times a week in presumably unsupervised visits. Shockingly, police were not notified of the baby’s neglect until seven months later when the baby’s foster parents noticed a “fishy smell” from her bottle following a visit with her parents. Testing revealed the contents to most likely be laxatives. In an interview with police:
“Brittainy expressed no remorse for not feeding the baby and admitted to hardly feeding (the infant) for many days,” Spoor said. “She also indicated she wanted to have 12 children.”
…Brittainy Labberton described her daughter as “very fat and overfed,” [Bellevue police Detective Ellen] Inman said. The detective added that the woman believed her daughter was much healthier before she was pulled from the home.
Samuel Labberton, 24, complained to detectives that his 9-month-old daughter had “gained so much weight that now she is fat,” according to court documents. He remained convinced he and his wife had behaved appropriately. “Samuel told me that he would not change anything if he could go back,” Inman said. “He does not believe that he and Brittainy did anything wrong.”
The public outrage and anger is palpable and you can imagine the kinds of hate-laced comments and arguments for forced sterilization lobbed the couples’ way (and disproportionately at the mother, I might add). To some degree, it’s understandable. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction to get angry at hearing of society’s most vulnerable being hurt and abused. What seems to be lacking however, is the consideration of (and compassion for) possible mental health issues at play here on behalf of the mother and quite possibly even the father. Do the Labbertons deserve jail time? Perhaps, although justice may better be served all around if that sentence also carries with it mental health counseling and treatment. But just as it takes a village to raise a child, it’s that same village that will lead those children to burn it down. We need to collectively ask ourselves the kind of culture we’re fostering when parents would rather kill their child than see it be fat.