A government agency rarely assumes immediate responsibility for a failure and then expedites a remedy. But Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon did just that after 7-year-old Gabriel Myers killed himself at his Broward County foster home in April.
Mr. Sheldon put together a group to investigate Gabriel’s death and ordered a comprehensive review of department records to determine the number of children in foster care taking psychotropic – meaning mind-altering – drugs. “I was stunned,” said Mr. Sheldon. “It is incomprehensible for me even now to understand how a child so young may have deliberately and consciously made a decision to end his life.”
Gabriel, who had been in state custody for 10 months, was taking Symbyax, a combination antipsychotic and antidepressant, when he hanged himself in the bathroom of his foster home. Gabriel’s caseworker had noted several times that DCF had parental consent for the medication. However, neither the boy’s mother nor a judge had signed the consent required under state law for him to receive the drug, which is known to cause suicidal behavior in children.
Last week, Mr. Sheldon released a report, based on the review. According to the report, information about Gabriel’s prescriptions was not in the department’s database. The review found that 2,669 children – or 13’percent – of the more than 20,000 children in foster care are taking one or more psychotropic drugs.
“That,” Mr. Sheldon said, “is a significant number.” Nationally, between 4 percent and 5 percent of children take such drugs. The review also found that 16 percent of the children in foster care taking these drugs do not have parental consent or a court order. “That is unacceptable,” said Mr. Sheldon. “Gabriel Myers and all of Florida’s children deserve better.”
Though the agency does not yet know whether his medication was a factor in Gabriel’s death, Mr. Sheldon has asked the DCF group to study the efficacy of such drugs. He also has instructed DCF caseworkers to take all children for whom parental consent or a court order is lacking back to their doctors and therapists for updated treatment plans.
Those children who have been prescribed psychotropic drugs must get informed parental consent or a court order before resuming the medication. Mr. Sheldon has asked judges statewide to expedite judicial review on these cases. “This report is an important first step in closely examining not only this case, said Mr. Sheldon, “but in helping to assure that this kind of tragedy never happens again.”
As with other investigations, the facts uncovered in this review do not reflect well on the Department of Children and Families. As with those other cases, though, Mr. Sheldon readily shared those facts and worried less about protecting the agency and more about protecting children.