When Vegetarian Families Encounter the Law
by Charles R. Attwood, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Social workers from the California Department of Children’s Services (DCS) arrived at the McBride School for handicapped children in Los Angeles shortly before noon on September 20, 1995. They took five-year-old Monea Hromadko from her classroom to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, according to her father, without his knowledge. Peter Hromadko, a single parent, was shocked to learn that his daughter would not be coming home that evening; the state was taking her because she was being raised on a vegetarian diet.
It all started a few days earlier. Noting Monea’s small stature, poor growth, and speech delay—she had a congenital neurological disorder—the school nurse was concerned because the child and her father were vegetarians. Peter, however, said the nurse had misunderstood him when he had explained their vegetarian diet. She had reported to DCS that Monea ate only fruit. At Cedars, assuming that her small stature was due to malnutrition, specific written instructions were given for more protein, including meat, cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, beef, hotdogs, gravy, peanut butter, and milk. Fresh fruits and vegetables were to be limited because they were too bulky. The State of California, however, quickly removed Monea from her father’s custody despite his pleadings and the fact that Monea was rarely sick.
I was first contacted by Dr. James DeAndrea, a Los Angeles physician, who wanted help in preparing for the upcoming court hearing. I sent material from my book, Dr. Attwood’s Low-Fat Prescription For Kids, as well as from New Century Nutrition columns by Dr. Benjamin Spock and myself, and secured a copy of the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets, written by Suzanne Havala. And it worked!
Dr. DeAndrea prepared a presentation for the judge, using the material we sent, and Monea was finally returned to the custody of her father on December 18, 1995. Later, all charges by the state were officially dropped on January 20, 1996. To this date, there have been no further state objections to the vegetarian diet of the Hromadko family. A rare experience? Maybe not. Some vegetarian families haven’t fared as well.
The Dumas Case
Shirley Dumas and her husband James, of Gary, Indiana, were told that state welfare agents had come to their church looking for them on January 23, 1996. Later that evening, at home, they were confronted by two members of Child Protective Services (CPS), a social welfare agency of the State of Indiana, and two armed policemen. They insisted Shirley strip the clothing from Jeremiah, the 17-month-old son she and James had adopted 8 months earlier. They inspected the child for bruises and then asked if they could look in the refrigerator. Shirley reports that when she said no, and demanded an explanation, it was opened anyway. She was told that their son was being taken into state custody because she and James were not feeding him proper food. The refrigerator search was done to confirm that there was no meat in the house. It was known at CPS that Shirley and James were vegetarians.
The child was small for his age, but Shirley, who has a degree in early childhood education, had known by the time of adoption that Jeremiah most likely had fetal alcohol effects and would develop slowly. To make sure he was properly fed, she had read about nutrition and prepared a varied diet of vegetables, fruits, legumes and goat’s milk. He especially liked lentils. When she explained this to the CPS agents, their only response was that they were doing their job. It’s been several months since Jeremiah was taken, and all efforts to get him back have failed.
The Hromadko and Dumas cases are presented here, not to frighten vegetarian families, but to illustrate the issue, and to offer a means by which parents can gather authoritative information in defense of their vegetarian lifestyles. It’s a scenario that I’m beginning to see more and more often. Admittedly, I’ve heard only one side of the Dumas story—the state agency will not discuss the case with either me or others who have inquired. The editor of Animal People, Merritt Clifton, a second-generation vegetarian who also has an extensive background in child protection services, is withholding judgment. He feels more information is needed before concluding that these families weren’t negligent.
Since this case came to my attention in early March, I’ve reviewed dozens of documents supplied to me by the Dumas family, including Jeremiah’s medical records, growth charts, documents about his probable fetal alcohol effects, character references from neighbors and an employee at the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, as well as Shirley’s early child education certificate. But most of all, I’ve talked at length with her several times. She is, in my opinion, knowledgeable about a proper plant-based diet. She and James are devastated; all their early bonding with Jeremiah, she worries, may be lost. Ironically, based on all the facts I have, Jeremiah was probably on a more healthful diet than most of his peers. Once again, I’ll send the judge my book, the ADA’s position paper, Dr. Spock’s diet recommendations in New Century Nutrition, and my strong opinion.
Like Merritt Clifton, I also have an extensive background in child protection services. Since 1964, as a practicing pediatrician, I’ve served as the primary physician for my community’s Child Protection Agency. Some days I’m asked as many as five times to evaluate children for alleged neglect or abuse. These investigations have usually been initiated by an anonymous complaint by a neighbor, a friend, or even a relative. I’ve found no neglect or abuse in the majority of these; but whatever I report, it’s the agency and a judge who make the decision about whether or not to remove a child from the parents. Are vegetarian families at risk from well-meaning but improperly educated social workers and judges? These people have enormous power, but in most cases their knowledge of nutrition is lacking. A family may be disrupted forever as a result of erroneous suspicions.
Could this be the tip of an iceberg? Since I’ve become involved in the Hromadko and Dumas cases, several other vegetarian families have contacted me concerning state threats to take their children and court orders to feed them meat and milk. Unfortunately, social workers and judges learned about food just like the rest of us; they learned their basic nutrition in grade school from materials and advertising supplied by the National Dairy Council and the National Beef Industry Council. If this lack of understanding must be accepted in order to live in a free country, then we must also accept the possibility that innocent parents are sometimes fallaciously accused of child neglect.
Source: Nutrition Advocate—www.nutritionadvocate.com Charles R. Attwood, M.D., a pediatrician and writer based in Crowley, Louisiana, is the author of Dr. Attwood’s Low-Fat Prescription For Kids.