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Vegan-at-Law: Can I be arrested for raising a vegan child?

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“Mom Faces Criminal Charges Because Officials Think Being a Vegan Endangers Her Baby” (TakePart)
“Vegan Couple Cleared of Starving Baby, Guilty of Child Neglect” (CNN
“Couple Guilty of Assault in Vegan Case” (NY Times)
“Vegan Mom: ‘Malnourished’ Baby was Healthy” (CNN)
“Trial Begins for a Scottsdale Vegan who Starved his Kids” (Phoenix New Times)
“Death by Veganism” (NY Times, Op-Ed Piece)

After reading these headlines, it is no wonder that people question you when you tell them you are raising your child vegan. The media sensationalizes cases involving vegan families to create a more tantalizing story, and then the headlines from these stories are quickly used as ammunition against veganism by people who do not understand that raising a vegan family is perfectly safe and healthy.

Yes, there have been cases against vegan parents that focus on the health and diet of the children. However, despite the media’s implication that a parent was arrested because he or she is vegan, the cases often come down to one or more of the following three things:

  1. The parents, simply stated, were not properly nourishing their child, not because of vegan beliefs, but because of their lack of nutritional knowledge,
  2. The parents lacked basic parenting skills, and were neglectful parents in multiple ways, not just diet alone, and
  3. Those involved in bringing and trying the case did not fully understand what being a vegan means, and were likely guided by unsubstantiated precedent and examples from other similar cases.

Not all of the parents in these cases should be labeled as awful parents who did not care about their children. Unfortunately, many of them were not educated enough to know what they should feed their child. But this is not a situation that is exclusive to the vegan community; it is true for vegetarian and omnivore families alike.

For instance, what about the parent who only feeds their child fast food? That is certainly not a healthy diet. A child on a fast-food diet will also be lacking in essential vitamins and nutrients. They may not starve, but they may become obese. Only one article cites a lawsuit involving children eating fast food, and that is a lawsuit by teenagers alleging that McDonald caused them to get fat. In this case, why haven’t the parents been brought to court or criticized in the media for how they feed their children?

Most of the articles I’ve cited relate to cases from 2003–2008. You may be thinking that since people are more educated about veganism these days, the focus in more-recent cases should no longer solely be on veganism. Alas, that is not the case. In November 2014, Sarah Markham, a vegan mom who was having trouble breastfeeding and was told by her doctor to give the child infant formula, chose to give her son, Caleb, organic soy formula instead. Sarah was arrested and Caleb was taken into protective custody. In this case, Sarah brought Caleb to the pediatrician for a checkup when he was 12 days old. Caleb had lost 10% of his birth weight, so the pediatrician told Sarah to take the infant to the hospital and prescribed dairy-based formula as a supplement to the breastfeeding. Sarah chose to buy organic soy formula instead and did not bring Caleb to the hospital. When the doctor discovered that Sarah had gone home without bringing Caleb to the hospital, police were sent to Sarah’s house. As mentioned above, she was arrested and charged with child neglect. Caleb was placed with his grandparents, and Sarah was only permitted supervised visits once or twice a week. In order to prove that she wasn’t a danger to Caleb, Sarah had to take a mental health evaluation, take parenting classes, and undergo drug testing. Sarah was finally allowed to take back custody of Caleb after almost five months, provided she met with a nutritionist. A local judge dismissed the Child Protective Services’ claim that Sarah was an unfit mother. The criminal charges are expected to be thrown out as well. The whole time Caleb was in his grandparents’ custody, he was on soy formula. He is now a healthy 17 pounds and doing just fine.

The sad truth is that if there is a way to gain more readers, the media is going to take advantage of that opportunity. Until raising vegan children becomes more mainstream and people realize that it is a perfectly healthy way to raise a child, there will be negative news reports about cases that involve vegan parents and children.

So, can you be arrested for raising a vegan child? These cases, or at least the media’s interpretation of these cases, seem to indicate that the answer is yes. However, these cases are much more involved and the ultimate reason for the parent’s arrest usually goes much deeper than veganism. There is no law stating that raising a vegan child is illegal. Until the media and individuals working in the justice system take the time to learn more about the truths of veganism, we will likely see headlines like the ones above pop up every once in awhile. All we can do is show others that raising a vegan child is healthy, responsible, and perfectly legal.

Have a question for Ashlee? Email her

Disclaimer: Although Ashlee K. Cartwright, Esq. is a licensed attorney, the content contained in this column is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice. Please understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the columnist and/or website publisher. If you have a question about a specific or personal legal matter, please contact a local licensed attorney.

Posted in Advice Columns, Vegan-at-Law

Ashlee is a lawyer and animal advocate. She has been vegan since 2010, and is mom to two little vegan cuties. She and her husband are in the process of starting a microsanctuary for farm animals. Pretty much anything purple makes her happy. You can send her your questions via email and follow her on Twitter.