In another tragic death, another lesson for DCF

Sarasota Herald Tribune
By Tom Lyons
Herald-Tribune Columnist

The photo of Gabriel Myers on the Department of Children and Families Web site shows a smiling 7-year-old looking happy and well-cared for.

He was anything but that when he died in April, in the bathroom of a foster home in Margate.

That a child so young would hang himself after the state took custody is terrible enough. Worse, one factor might have been psychotropic drugs prescribed under DCF care.

What careful consideration went into the decision to give that boy Symbyax, an anti-psychotic and anti-depressant, combined with another drug for ADHD? I have no idea. Despite strict reporting and permission requirements to make sure indifferent foster parents don’t drug troubled kids just to make handling them easier, DCF Secretary George Sheldon says his agency’s database didn’t even show the boy was prescribed the drugs. Nor did DCF have a parental permission form or judge’s order, as required.

Worse still, Sheldon says his own investigation has already determined this is not unusual. DCF thought 1,950 kids under its supervision were on similar medications. The actual number is more than 2,600. One in six have no approval forms from a judge or parent.

“That is unacceptable,” Sheldon said.

Richard Wexler — a man I often quote as a thoughtful watchdog on child welfare agencies — could once again jump all over Florida’s system now. But Wexler says he has seen things to praise as well as criticize of late.

Yes, he says, the drug stats indicate “a lot of kids are being given these drugs not because they need them but because some group home workers and stranger-care parents want them doped up and docile.”

It is too easy for foster parents to decide an upset, unhappy child needs drugs, never mind that he has reason to be freaked out while being forced to live among strangers.

That underscores one of his themes: Kids usually fare better when placed with relatives, even imperfect ones, “because Grandma loves that child,” he said.

But DCF has put more emphasis on relative placement, and Wexler likes Sheldon’s response to Gabriel’s death. He says Sheldon seems to mean it when he says his aim now is making sure kids get drugs only when needed, and that a permission form would not have saved Gabriel.

In fact, Sheldon said what Wexler and I both think about that: Parents will often sign whatever DCF says to sign, out of fear, “and that’s not informed consent.”

So when DCF wants psychiatric drugs for foster kids, it had better have a good reason.

Tom Lyons can be contacted at tom.lyons@heraldtribune.com or (941) 361-4964.

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