BANGOR, Maine — A young Brooklin mother who feeds her baby a goat milk-based formula, missed doctor appointments and refuses to have her child vaccinated is accusing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services of overreaching its authority by investigating her son’s well-being.
Family and supporters of Alorah Gellerson, 17, and her 4-month-old son, Carson, held a rally Thursday at Cascade Park in Bangor to make a statement against DHHS, which the young mother says has completed its investigation and given the baby a clean bill of health.
“We must send Maine DHHS a message that this overreach of authority is not acceptable,” the family wrote of the event on their farm’s Facebook page.
Many in the group who gathered at the park wore pins that read, “Goat milk formula is not a crime.”
“I’m trying to do the best for my child, and I’m getting in trouble for it,” Gellerson said at the protest that drew about 40 people, including nine who spoke at the event.
John Martins, a spokesman for DHHS, said in an email Thursday that the department would not confirm or deny involvement with a family or child based on confidentiality laws, “so we cannot comment.”
Carson was born prematurely on May 7 and weighed only 4 pounds and 10 ounces, according to his mother. Because he was in neonatal intensive care for a week, Gellerson did not breastfeed him and had a hard time getting him to breastfeed after he was discharged, she said.
For that reason, she and her mother, Tania Allen, who runs Everyday Miracles Farm and Home School, did research online and came up with a homemade formula in order to avoid manufactured baby foods that sometimes contain growth hormones and other additives they wanted to avoid.
The homemade formula recipe they created, with assistance from the Weston A. Price Foundation, uses milk from the family’s goats. It originally had celery juice, probiotics, vitamins, flax seed and coconut oils.
They recently removed the celery juice because Carson — at 12 ½ pounds — is now eating avocado and other fruits and vegetables, his mother said.
The DHHS problems started for the family in early August.
Gellerson said she’s not sure who reported her to DHHS, but she believes it was her family MaineCare doctor in Ellsworth because, “I wasn’t vaccinating and I wasn’t coming in for appointments,” the teenager mother said, with her son snugly held in a tummy pack.
Gellerson said in a previous interview that she was against vaccinations because, “It just goes against my religious beliefs, and I just know it’s not something Carson needs.”
A message left for Gellerson’s Ellsworth doctor about whether she reported the teen mother to DHHS was not immediately returned Thursday.
The initial visit by the DHHS caseworker was followed by another. Then on Aug. 5, the caseworker demanded that Gellerson take Carson to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor “because he was quote, ‘seriously ill,’” Gellerson said.
“If we didn’t comply, they were going to take him,” she said.
The DHHS caseworker said that the goat’s milk wasn’t good for the baby, according to Gellerson.
Gellerson, Dustin Powers, the baby’s father, and Allen went to EMMC with Carson where a team of four doctors reviewed his health. All cleared him for release, the young mother said.
While the final tests were being done, the young parents were told that Dr. Lawrence Ricci, a Portland doctor that DHHS consults in child abuse and neglect cases, had overruled the EMMC doctors’ decision. The family was ordered to stay the night “for observation,” Gellerson said.
“It’s ridiculous,” she added.
A message left for Ricci at his Portland office Thursday was not immediately returned.
Gellerson and Powers, who have since switched baby doctors to one at EMMC, originally were required to have a follow up appointment Thursday with Ricci at the Spurwink Child Abuse Clinic office in Bangor. According to Gellerson, that meeting was cancelled in a letter that stated the department had “no concerns.”
But the decision was made to hold the DHHS protest anyway to let people know what happened, Gellerson’s mother said.
Milk from goats is a suitable alternative for babies who have problems digesting or are unable to tolerate cow’s milk, Dr. Williams Sears, a Harvard Medical-trained pediatric physician who has written more than 30 books on children’s health and is often featured as a specialist on television shows, said in an article in Parenting magazine online.
He cautions, however, that milk from goats lacks folic acid, so a supplement is required.
“The vitamin and mineral content of goat’s milk and cow’s milk are fairly similar, though goat’s milk contains a bit more calcium, vitamin B6, vitamin A, potassium, niacin, copper and the antioxidant selenium,” Sears states. “On the other hand, cow’s milk contains more vitamin B12 and much more folic acid. Since goat’s milk contains less than ten percent of the amount of folic acid contained in cow’s milk, it must be supplemented with folic acid.”
Dr. Sangita Basnet wrote a 2009 report as part of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Critical Care, that states the Internet and some cultural beliefs have led parents to believe that raw goat milk alone is enough, which she debunks.
“Although infants should not be fed unmodified, raw goat’s milk, goat’s milk infant formula may be a suitable alternative to cow’s milk formula,” her report states, which cites several international studies and was printed in March 2010 Pediatrics online.
Suzie Miller, a goat farmer from North Anson, and Carole Piasecki of Hartland, who said she was a gardener, organized the protest after hearing the plight of Gellerson.
“We shouldn’t have to fight for the rights to ingest what we want,” Miller said.
Miller said she helped to organize the rally because, “crazy little things can happen under the radar, and we really do have power to stop them.”
Gellerson said she was so scared that she was going to lose Carson, she started to feed him store bought formulas. After three different types that all made her son throw up or have constipation, she switched back to the goat milk-based formula.
She said her son’s health is testament enough that she made the right decision.
“In my opinion, he’s thriving on this diet,” Gellerson said.