Custody Battle Boils Over Vegan Diet

ABC looks at the legality of the vegan lifestyle in a Florida custody case.

January 8, 2009, 12:18 AM

June 28, 2007 — -- 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.

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.

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.

According to vegan critics, however, this plant-based eating regimen could pose serious health risks to children.

"The evidence is robust that a vegan diet is not adequate for babies or growing children," said Nina Planck, author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why."

Some critics express concern that parents tend to replace dairy and meat products with soy, claiming that diets largely based on soy interfere with fertility and hormonal development.

Kaala Daniel, a nutritional scientist whose book "The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America's Favorite Health Food," raised these health concerns about diets with large amounts of soy.

Pro-vegan experts, on the other hand, insist that a vegan diet is very healthy, if not preferred, for children.

"I absolutely support vegan diets for young children," said Gray. She added she has seen so many parents who were so satisfied with the plant-based diet for children with kidney problems that they put their entire family on it.

Gray said she worries that general pediatricians aren't as up to speed as they need to be on this diet. "Hundreds of children are raised on soy -- if this were so horrible to all of America's babies, someone would know other than a handful of nutritionists," she said.

Both critics and supporters of veganism recommend that children who are on a vegan diet take supplements, particularly for vitamins D and B12. For parents who are just beginning the diet, unless they are well informed, experts recommend that they consult a nutritionist to make sure their supplements are adequate.

Given the excessively high protein diets many kids eat, Gray suggested that nonvegan children need nutrition consultations even more.

Yet to Daniel, fortified food and supplements aren't good enough. "No matter how well you try to do it, it's hard to get what is needed in quality form, like vitamins A and D, through fortified supplements."

In a legal context, the court might see this as "unintentional cruelty," said Daniel, who vigorously warned against vegan diets for growing children, and said parents may think they are doing best for children but could be really hurting them.

Plank added, "We need to protect babies and children from vegan diets, because they don't have a choice about what they eat."

Sasser also suggested that if this issue is about the alleged excessive control and mental health of the mother, the father's attorney might be able to argue that she is impairing the children's relationships to the father and the father's family, driven by her alleged concern for example, about the grandparent's leather furniture and nonvegan lifestyle.

"I don't think that because of one parent's vegan diet alone, the other parent deserves custody over the other," said Lanou. "Parents always have to decide what their kids can eat, and everyone else has their own opinion about the best way to feed children."

But when it comes to deciding which parent should get primary custody, the otherwise personal decision about what to feed a child could weigh in to the dispute if one parent's diet of choice is proved harmful to the child's welfare.

"We shouldn't be experimenting with this fashionable and seductive diet that the impedes growth of our children," warned Daniel.

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