Vegetarian Families and the Courts
by
Charles R. Attwood, M.D., F.A.A.P.

ocial 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, said he was shocked when he learned later that evening that she would not be coming home; the state was taking his daughter from him because he and Monea were vegetarians.

It all started a few days earlier, when the school nurse, concerned about Monae's small stature, poor growth, and speech delays -- she had a congenital neurological disorder -- noted that the child and her father were vegetarians and consumed no meat or dairy products. She misunderstood, Peter said, his suggestion to offer her fruit, reporting to DCS that she ate only fruit. Monea was rarely sick, but had been diagnosed with development problems since birth. At Cedars, assuming that her small statue 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. It suggested that fresh fruits and vegetables be limited, because they were too bulky. The State of California, however, quickly removed Monea from the custody of her father, despite his pleadings.

It was then that I was contacted by Dr. James DeAndrea, a Los Angeles physician, who had taken a special interest in the case. He asked, on the father's behalf, for my help in preparing for the upcoming hearing before the judge. Could I, he asked, supply material about vegetarian diets for children. "We must stop this," he said. He was concerned about the state establishing such a precedent. So after being assured by Dr. DeAndrea that I had all the facts, I sent material from my book, Dr. Attwoods's Low-Fat Prescription For Kids, from columns in New Century Nutrition 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 send, 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. But some vegetarian families haven't fared as well.

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 23rd, 1996. Later that evening, at home, there was a knock at the door around 8:30 P.M.

There, she was confronted by two members of Child Protective Services (CPS), a social welfare agency of the State of Indiana, and two armed policemen. They insisted, she said, that she 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 to know what this was all about, it was opened anyway. She was told that their daughter 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 the Shirley and James were vegetarians.

The child was small for his age, but Shirly, who has a degree in early childhood education, had known at the time of the adoption that Jeremiah likely had fetal alcohol effects and would grow more slowly than a normal infant. To assure that Jeremiah was properly fed, she had regularly read about nutrition and sought advise from healthfood stores. His meals consisted of a varied diet of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and goat's milk. He especially likes lentils. When she explained this to the agents from CPS, their only response was that they were only doing their job. It's been three months since Jeremiah was taken, and all efforts to get him back have failed.

The vegetarian practices of the Dumas family, began shortly after they were married 10 years ago. When they met, James was interested in herbs and Shirley was already reading about the health benifits of plant-based food. "So it was just natural that we became vegetarians."

Shirley and James Dumas had another disadvantage not shared by Peter Hromadko. It actually resulted, she thinks, from their interest in handicaped children, especailly those born to mothers who abused drugs or alcohol. They had been foster parents until two years ago when the state discovered that they were vegetarians. At the time, they were caring for three children, including a developmentally handicapped child who was severely premature at birth. Their foster parent license was revoked. They complained bitterly at the state level, which now, they admit may have tarnished their images as parents. "Now they were watching us when we adopted Jeremiah."

The Hermanko 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 authoritive 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 the state agency will not discuss the case with either me or others who have inquired. Merritt Clifton, a second generation vegetarian and editor of Animal People, a monthly animal rights newspaper -- who also has an extensive background in child protection services -- is witholding judgement. He feels that more information is needed in order to conclude 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, and Shirley's early child education certificate. But most of all, I've talked at length with Shirley several times. She is, in my opinion, knowledgeable about a proper plant-based diet. She says she and James are devastated; all their early bonding, 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 documents for the judge, my book, the ADA's position paper, Dr. Spock's diet recommendations in New Century Nutritin, 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, depending upon their 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 of taking their children and court orders to feed them meat and milk. Unfortunately, social workers and judges learned about food in grade school -- just like the rest of us -- from materials and advertising supplied by the National Dairy Council and the National Beef Industry Council. If this must be accepted in order to live in a free country, then we must also accept the possibility that inocent parents are sometimes fallaciously accused of child neglect.

Shirley's response to this during one of our interviews: "But this is America!"

Also see: Vegetarian Children

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