By Jon Burstein and Kate Santich | Staff Writers
Almost one of every six foster children on mood-altering drugs in Florida is being medicated without the court order or parental consent required by law, according to a study released Thursday by the state Department of Children and Families.
DCF Secretary George Sheldon acknowledged there was “no rational basis” for 433 foster children in Florida being given psychotropic drugs without the required documentation. He vowed that by next week, the agency would ensure that the children have parental consent to take the drugs or that their cases are scheduled to go before a judge.
The study is more fallout from last month’s suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, a South Florida boy who hanged himself in the bathroom of his foster home. At the time of his death, he had been prescribed two psychotropic drugs — Symbyax and Vyvanse — that had not been approved by either his parents or a judge.
It is not known whether the drugs contributed to his death, but DCF officials launched an investigation into how many children in the state’s care are prescribed such drugs, which include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and stimulants. The officials also examined whether proper consent had been obtained.
In Central Florida, 13 percent to 20 percent of foster kids receive psychotropic drugs. Most of the medicated are teenagers.
In comparison, about 5 percent of children in the general population are on some sort of psychotropic drug, said Rajiv Tandon, a University of Florida psychiatry professor examining Gabriel Myers’ death.
But consent is spotty, varying widely from one county to the next, depending on the agency contracted to oversee the foster children. In Volusia, for instance, fewer than 1 percent of cases have no record of parental or judicial approval. In Orange and Osceola counties, the figure is nearly 30 percent.
John Cooper, director of DCF’s central region, which includes Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and 12 other counties, said he was less concerned with the number of medicated children than with the effect of the drugs on those who take them and whether the children also are getting counseling.
“This is a vulnerable population,” Cooper said. “And we need to do a better job of tracking and monitoring these kids.”
At Community Based Care of Seminole — a private agency contracted by DCF to handle foster-care cases — CEO Glen Casel said the real lesson of Gabriel Myers’ suicide is for caseworkers and caretakers to treat each foster child as if he or she were their own.
“If my child were prescribed by a doctor to be put on a medication — or two or three or four medications — you’d have some explaining to do,” Casel said. “It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it, but I would have to be assured and comfortable that this was best for the long-term benefit of my child.”
Statewide, of the 20,235 foster children in the system, 2,669 of them — or 13 percent — are on the drugs, including 73 who are 5 or younger, the study found.
Child advocates long have been frustrated with the administering of psychotropic drugs to foster children, arguing that the medications are used more often to subdue children than to address their mental-health issues.
Jon Burstein of the ( Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4491. Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5503.