Many foster kids being medicated in Florida

Florida Times Union
By Brandon Larrabee Story updated at 4:45 AM on Friday, May. 29, 2009

TALLAHASSEE – Almost 2,700 foster children are on psychiatric medicines, including hundreds in Northeast Florida, even though the Department of Children and Families has no authority to give the drugs to more than 16 percent of those children, according to a state report issued Thursday.

The report follows an ongoing review by DCF after the assumed suicide this year of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers in Fort Lauderdale.

Gabriel was taking psychiatric, or psychotropic, medications. But DCF later found that those caring for the boy hadn’t obtained the parental consent or court order required by state law.

According to the report, 2,669 children being cared for outside of their home – or almost 13.2 percent of foster children – are taking some form of psychotropic drugs. The agency couldn’t find evidence of parental consent or a court order in 16.2 percent of those cases.

“It is inconceivable to me … that the system doesn’t have this right yet,” said DCF Secretary George Sheldon, speaking to reporters after the agency released the information, a picture of Gabriel projected on the wall behind him.

Sheldon, who took over at DCF late last year, said there was no excuse for the agency to wait until the boy’s death to make sure the law was being followed.

“In my opinion, there’s absolutely no rational basis, no argument that can be made,” he said. “We’ve got to get it right. We will get it right.”

Sheldon also said he has rescinded a memo saying case managers didn’t need to get parental consent or a court order if the drug was prescribed for a non-psychiatric purpose.

“That is not the statute,” he said. “That is not the law.”

Psychotropic drugs, particularly anti-depressants, have become controversial because of worries that they might increase thoughts of suicide in children, prompting the FDA to put a “black box” warning on the medications.

Across Northeast Florida

In the Fourth Circuit, which is Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, 205 children in foster care are taking at least one psychotropic drug. That number is 136 for the Seventh Circuit, comprised of St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler and Volusia counties, and 76 in the Eighth Circuit of Baker, Union, Bradford, Gilchrist, Alachua and Levy counties.

The agency found no authorization for 22 children, or about 5 percent, in the agency’s 19-county Northeast Region – comprised of the Fourth, Seventh and Eighth circuits, along with the Third Circuit.

The agency will try to obtain parental consent for children taking the drugs by June 5, or it will take the cases to court.

Lawmakers said the report raised troubling questions about how well the agency has kept tabs on children taking the mind-altering drugs.

“Some place along the line, I think they’ve got to get control of that,” said Sen. Steve Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who sits on the committee overseeing DCF.

Rep. Lake Ray, a member of the House committee responsible for the agency, said the breakdown also stretched beyond DCF.

“I’m really amazed,” said Ray, R-Jacksonville. “I’m amazed that the doctors don’t have a policy in place.”

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