Quints custody battle questions vegan lifestyle

A Tampa father challenges a way of living without animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy – and leather

Published June 25, 2007

TAMPA - Ten years ago, Gayle and Jeff Nelson-Folkersen were overjoyed with the birth of their healthy quintuplets, thought to be the first born in the Tampa Bay area. TV cameras and well-wishers with donations all wanted to share in the proud parents' exciting journey.

But as the five babies grew up, the couple grew apart.

Now the quints are in the middle of an unusual custody battle in which the father claims the mother has "serious psychological control issues" and imposes a strict vegan diet -- no meat, eggs or dairy -- on the children, according to Hillsborough County court files. She even restricts the quints' visits with their paternal grandparents, the divorce petition states, because they have leather furniture.

Jeff, 46, is seeking primary residential custody of all five 10-year-olds. Gayle, 50, says she's more fit for primary custody, having raised the kids as a stay-at-home mom all of their lives.

Neither parent would comment on the case, which is scheduled for a two-day final hearing next month. It is unclear how prominently the children's diet or the control issues their father alleges will be debated in court. The more likely question will be over which parent creates the most stable and healthy environment for the children, not over what they eat.

But the arguments over vegan child-rearing have recently caught national attention in other cases and continue to stir up personal feelings about food, ethics and parenting.

"How you feed yourself is an incredibly personal decision," said Amy Joy Lanou, a vegan nutrition expert who testified in a case last month that found a vegan Atlanta couple guilty of starving their baby to death.

"So naturally, how you feed your children is an incredibly personal decision. There are some really deep-seated issues when it comes to vegan vs. nonvegan eating."

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Gayle Nelson-Folkersen has been defending her children's diet and lifestyle since they were babies. According to a 2003 interview with a vegan Web site, vegfamily.com, titled "Gayle: Vegan Mother of Vegan Quintuplets," it appears that she opened up about the rewards and challenges of raising five vegans. The article never uses her last name, but it includes personal information about her husband, Jeff, their life in Florida and a photo of the quints around age 6.

One of those challenges, the article indicates, was dealing with the Florida Department of Children and Families, "which, when they find out that my children are vegan, decide that we are neglectful parents," Gayle says in the article. She went on to say DCF questioned her once when the quints were 14 months old and again when they were almost 6. A DCF spokesman said the agency cannot comment on whether it investigated a family.

There is no mention of DCF in the divorce case file, and Jeff Nelson-Folkersen does not appear to suggest that the quints are necessarily malnourished or unhealthy.

However, his mention of the strict vegan lifestyle that Gayle Nelson-Folkersen imposes on herself and the children in the divorce filing suggests an obvious disdain for such a practice. It is the only clear complaint in the divorce petition, and his attorney also asked the court to appoint a psychologist because Jeff "is concerned that the children have not been properly nourished and cared for."

Although he wants primary custody, Jeff Nelson-Folkersen's petition suggests that as an alternative, the parents should have equal and rotating residential responsibilities.

Vegan diets, especially for children, are often criticized not just from a nutritional standpoint, but also an ethical or psychological one. Adults often choose veganism because they disagree with the way factory farms use animals to produce eggs and milk, as well as how they are fattened or slaughtered for meat.

Is it okay to teach a child about these practices to ensure they share a parent's views on cheese, ice cream and leather furniture?

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Some might find the choice to raise a child to have these ethical beliefs as no different from raising a child to have certain spiritual beliefs. The fact that such a restricted diet can lack necessary vitamins and nutrients that a growing child needs can complicate the argument.

In the case of the Atlanta vegan parents, who were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after underfeeding their 6-week-old son with a diet of organic apple juice and soy milk, Lanou's expert testimony helped prove that the parents could have fed the baby breast milk or other healthy vegan alternatives, such as soy baby formula.

In a similar case in 2005, a Miami couple were convicted of child neglect for feeding a diet of wheatgrass, coconut juice and almond milk to a 6-month-old girl who eventually died. But the baby didn't die from being vegan, said Dr. David Cundiff, a medical expert who testified in the trial, and that wasn't a proper vegan diet. The baby also had an infection caused by a rare congenital defect that weakened her immune system, contributing to the death.

Sarah Krieger, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association of Tampa Bay, said that the ADA approves of a vegan diet for infants and children as long as they also take supplements or eat foods fortified with calcium, vitamins D and B-12, and other nutrients found in animal-based foods.

"People use vegan like it's a four-letter word that's bad," Krieger said. "It definitely is not."

As far as the psychological aspect of vegan child-rearing, that might be hard to argue in court, said Tampa family law lawyer Steve Sessums, who has no connection to the Nelson-Folkersen case.

"My initial reaction is that certain dietary restrictions that people do well with every day is kind of an immaterial fact," Sessums said. "As a practical matter, the court will look at what pattern have the parents established with the children. If the children have done well, the courts are going to be reluctant to change that pattern."

A court-appointed psychologist is evaluating the children to compare the couple's parenting, and he hopes to present his findings next month.

"My guess is if a therapist has been appointed, that tells me they're really trying to sort this out in a way that's not litigious, " Sessums said. "And that's a good thing, because across the board, there's one thing that all child psychologists agree upon: The worst thing that parents can do to their children is fight over them."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or 813 269-5313.

Fast Facts:

On veganism

- A vegan (pronounced VEE-gun) is someone who avoids using or consuming any products or foods made from an animal. The reasons for going vegan could be nutritional, ethical, environmental or spiritual. A vegan typically shuns meat, eggs and dairy, as well as fur, leather, wool, silk, honey, and cosmetics or chemicals that are tested on animals.

- Certain vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamin B-12 and essential fatty acids, can only be found in animal foods. This is why supplements and fortified foods are crucial to a vegan's daily diet.

- A vegan diet is usually based on vegetables, fruits and grains. Since a lot of familiar American foods contain milk, eggs and cheese, there are a lot of substitute products made from soy, vegetable oil, gluten and rice that can be used in cooking.

- Some people choose even stricter forms and variations of the vegan diet. Raw foodism is a diet that excludes anything cooked higher than 118 degrees, the point at which enzymes begin to break down. Fruitarianism is a diet based on fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes. Sproutarianism is a diet based on bean sprouts, wheat sprouts or broccoli sprouts, supplemented with other raw foods.