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Vegan parents on trial for baby's severe malnutrition

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

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(Court TV) -- Silva Swinton and her husband, Joseph, followed a strict vegan diet in their Queens home. They swore off meat and dairy products and existed on a regiment of vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts.

When Silva gave birth to a daughter, Ice, in July 2000, they put the newborn on the same plan. Instead of breast milk or baby formula, Ice Swinton got herbal tea, flax seed oil, fruit juices and a homemade soy drink.

The result, authorities say, was a health catastrophe that rises to the level of a crime. At 15 months, the girl weighed only 10 pounds and had no teeth. She could not sit up or talk and had a swollen abdomen.

Doctors diagnosed her with severe malnutrition and rickets, and the Queens district attorney said it was one of the worst cases of neglect he'd seen.

Her parents are now on trial in Queens Supreme Court on first-degree assault charges that could land them each in jail for 25 years.

The Swintons, both 32, maintain they are loving parents who doted on Ice and thought the diet was best for her and her little brother, Ini, who was born after the couple's arrest. Both children are in foster care. In his opening statement last Tuesday, Silva Swinton's attorney, Christopher Shella, told the jury of nine women and three men, "At the end of the trial, you'll find that the choices they made were not criminal, but human."

The Swintons may take the witness stand in their own defense later this week. According to her lawyer, Silva Swinton suffered from medical problems, including obesity, before becoming a vegan. Both parents were suspicious of doctors and medicine, and Silva Swinton delivered Ice at home. The girl weighed three pounds, according to a bathroom scale, Swinton later told a social worker. The Swintons also refused to have their daughter immunized.

The prosecution's case has focused on the severity of Ice's medical problems and her parents' apparent lack of concern.

The doctor who examined Ice in November 2001, after an anonymous tip about neglect led to the intervention of children's services, testified last Wednesday that the girl, then 15 months old, looked like a newborn. He said her spindly arms and legs were bowed by rickets, her belly was distended and her skin covered in "the worst diaper rash you ever saw."

Ice "looked like someone you'd see coming out of a famine in a far-off country," Dr. Jay Berger of Long Island Jewish Hospital testified.

The EMT who took Ice to the hospital told jurors her hair was matted and filthy and her fingernails were so long and dirty as to resemble "claws."

The girl spent nearly four months in the hospital and in a rehabilitation center. Another physician, an expert in childhood malnutrition, testified Monday that Ice was "at a severe and critical risk of dying" when removed from her home. Dr. Roy Brown also said Ice may be dogged throughout her life by developmental delays caused by a lack of nutrition to the brain during her infancy.

Prosecutor Eric Rosenbaum also called a nutrition expert and practicing vegan who said the couple did not seem to be practicing a mainstream vegan diet. Amy Joy Lanou, of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said that vegans are encouraged to breast feed their children or use a manufactured soy-based formula instead. She also pointed out that the Swintons gave the baby cod liver oil, an animal product vegans avoid.

Throughout the testimony, Silva Swinton, who is free on $20,000 bail, and Joseph, who remains in jail, whispered to each other at the defense table and wrote notes to their attorneys.

Some prosecution witnesses have described the couple as deeply caring but oblivious. A doctor who treated Ice said the couple expressed "paranoid themes" about the hospital's treatment of their daughter, but also seemed loving. The mother, the doctor testified, was taking care of Ice "according to her belief" without realizing the harm done.

A social worker who insisted Ice go to the hospital testified Monday that while she had grave concerns about the girl's health, she was certain the parents were devoted.

"I was really going to try to work with the family. The mother and father obviously do love their child a lot," said social worker Kelly Harris.

Shella and Joseph Swinton's lawyer, Ronna Gordon-Galchus, have suggested both that the Swintons did not realize the danger of the diet and that Ice's problems have more to do with her premature birth than with malnutrition.

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