Custody Battle Boils Over Vegan Diet

Parents going through a child custody fight have said some unusual things to prove they are the better caretaker.

Take the case of the Nelson-Folkerson quintuplets. They may be part of the less than 1 percent of children in the United States on a strict vegan diet -- and their culinary habits are now at the center of their parents' bitter custody battle.

In this unusual custody fight in Florida, the quintuplets' father, Jeff Nelson-Folkerson, says in court papers that he should have custody of the 10-year-olds, citing his wife's "serious psychological control issues," first and foremost of which is imposing a strict vegan diet on the kids, a diet "so strict, in fact, that she rarely allows the children to visit their paternal grandparents because they have leather furniture in their home" and might let the children eat animal-based foods.

Nelson-Folkerson wants primary custody, or alternately joint custody, of all five children.

A strict vegan diet, which is an extension of vegetarianism, includes only foods that come from plants, such as fruit, grains, vegetables and legumes.

While it's unclear how significantly the children's diet or the mother's alleged control issues will play into the custody battle, the case raises other issues about health, ethics and parenting.

Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Nelson-Folkerson would comment on the case.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses?

Legal experts told ABC News that the Nelson-Folkerson's fight sounds unusual -- but not surprising. Florida child custody laws give judges wide discretion in deciding who gets the kids. In custody hearings, these experts said, anything is possible.

"I've heard it all," said Thomas Sasser, chairman of the family law section of the Florida Bar. From complaints about a Christian Scientologist mother to a father who doesn't use appropriate sunscreen, parents will search for any excuse to be with their children.

In this fast-food-friendly nation where pediatric obesity has been called a form of child abuse by some doctors, the law does not directly address the legality of imposing a strict vegan diet on children.

Florida's custody statute encourages shared parental custody and focuses on the best interests of the child. The law would be less concerned about a specific diet, Sasser said, and more concerned about a parent's capacity to provide the children with food.

Amy Lanou, a practicing vegan nutritionist, testified for the prosecution in an Atlanta case last month that found vegan parents guilty of starving their 6-month-old to death. She said that based on the available information, she can see no reason why the Nelson-Folkerson's mother's dietary preference for her children would make her less qualified to obtain custody.

While cases like the recent Atlanta one have fueled critics in the ongoing veganism debate, the amount the Atlanta baby was fed was the issue, she said. The parents gave very little soy milk and apple juice to the baby, who weighed about 3½ pounds at the time of death.

"The vegan diet should be a nonissue, period," Dr. Roberta Gray, a North Carolina pediatric nephrologist, told ABC News. She argued that if it were an issue, the court should act more favorably to the person providing the vegan diet.

Vegan Children Debate

Yet the Florida case, which could determine whether extreme diets can influence the outcomes of custody cases, calls attention to ongoing debates about veganism, children and parenting.

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