Mother Loses Custody for Failure to Heed Doctors’ Warnings Regarding Her Child’s Illness

The recent case of Austin v. Torres, NO. M2012-01219-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 20, 2014) reminds us that parents risk losing custody when they fail to abide by the advice of their child’s medical specialists.


The Mother and Father in this case have a child who was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU).

Patients with PKU are unable to break down phenylalanine (Phe), an amino acid found in high-protein foods such as steak, eggs, milk, cheese and chicken.  For patients with PKU, the inability to break down Phe causes it to build up in the bloodstream when Phe-containing foods are ingested.  Because Phe build-up can lead to seizures, brain damage and other neurological problems, patients with PKU must monitor their diets very carefully and avoid foods that contain high levels of Phe.

The Mother was designated as the child’s Primary Residential Parent.  Both parents were to record the child’s food intake and to exchange this food diary whenever the child was exchanged.

In September 2011, the Father filed a petition seeking to be designated as the child’s Primary Residential Parent, alleging that the Mother was not documenting the food she was feeding their son and, worse, she was feeding their son foods containing inappropriate levels of Phe.

At trial, the child’s nurse practitioner testified that the Mother does not seem to understand the disease or the importance of adhering to a Phe-restricted diet.

Furthermore, the son’s nutritionist testified that the Mother either does not believe that the child has PKU or that if she prays the child will be cured.  On cross-examination, the Mother was still unable to identify the problems with the food records she kept.

The trial court designated the Father as the child’s Primary Residential Parent and limited the Mother’s parenting time to fifty (50) days per year.  In finding that the Mother’s failures regarding her son’s special diet constituted a material change of circumstances, the trial court was “very concerned for the child’s health and well-being.”

The Mother appealed, arguing that it was improper to find that a material change of circumstances had occurred and that the Father should not have been designated as the Primary Residential Parent.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and stated, “Mother’s response to her child’s medical/nutritional needs was a material change of circumstances that affected the well-being of the child in a meaningful way…[the] Mother exposed the child to danger to his health.”

The Court affirmed the limitation on the Mother’s parenting time as well, emphasizing that it protects the child from unnecessary exposure to dangerous foods.