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.
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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
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
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
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.