BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Almost three of every 10 teenage foster children in Florida have been prescribed at least one mental health drug, and 73 foster children younger than 6 are taking mind-altering drugs, according to a detailed study released Thursday by the state’s child welfare agency.
In all, a total of 2,669 children — or 13.19 percent of all Florida foster children — are being administered powerful psychiatric drugs, says the study, commissioned last month by Department of Children & Families Secretary George Sheldon. The largest group of such children, or almost 60 percent, includes teens age 13 to 17.
Sheldon ordered the study of every child in state custody after The Miami Herald reported that 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, who hanged himself April 16 at a Margate foster home, had been prescribed several mental health drugs without the required consent of a parent or state court judge.
Gabriel’s foster care records showed he had been taking at least two psychiatric drugs at the time of his death. And though his caseworker had repeatedly checked off a box indicating the state had obtained parental consent, no such approval had ever been sought or received.
”This report is an important first step closely examining — not only this case — but to help ensure this type of tragedy never happens again,” Sheldon said Thursday at a news conference.
”This department is responsible to monitor the use of these drugs, to ensure the care, treatment and safety of our children,” he added.
Sheldon, a former deputy attorney general, said he had ”serious questions” in general about the use of mental health drugs on children. Many such drugs have never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on children, and many are linked to serious side effects.
”I think this should be done as a last resort, after a full review by the appropriate kinds of medical professionals,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon also acknowledged the concerns of many Florida child advocates that mental health drugs are being used as ”chemical restraints” to control the behavior of difficult-to-manage foster kids. ”These medications should not be used for the convenience of parents or foster parents,” Sheldon said.
Among the 20,235 children whose case files were studied, investigators found no parental or judicial consent on record for 16.2 percent of the children, the report says.
Like prior studies, the new report shows that children in foster homes, group homes or other institutional settings are far more likely to be taking mental health drugs than children living with relatives. Overall, only 4.3 percent of children in relative care have been prescribed psychiatric drugs, compared with 21 percent for foster homes and 26 percent for other out-of-home settings.
The disparity is particularly acute among older children: Among children 13 to 17, 11.8 percent living with relatives have been prescribed at least one mental health drug, compared with 35 percent in foster care and 33 percent in other institutional settings, the report says.
The five-page report outlines a host of steps DCF administrators will take in coming days, including:
• State child welfare lawyers will seek consent from parents who still have authority to make decisions on their children’s behalf, or go to court to seek approval for drugs for children who currently lack such consent.
• Administrators are launching an ”immediate” review to determine how reliable the state’s computerized child welfare database is, in light of findings that the database did not accurately reflect about one-third of kids in state care who are taking psychiatric drugs.
”The top priority of this review will be children 5 and under,” the report said.
• DCF administrators and the heads of privately run foster care agencies throughout the state will discuss ongoing issues over the use of psychiatric drugs by foster children once each week by telephone.
”The purpose of these calls is to ensure effective communication on improvements that must take place, to respond to any questions from [the private agencies] concerning psychotropic medications and to resolve outstanding issues,” the report said.