By DANIEL SHOER ROTH
When a 7-year-old boy on a risky regime of psychiatric medications hangs himself in the bathroom of a foster home, you have to ask whether his guardian — the state of Florida — knows how to be a good parent.
It is very easy to wrest a child from negligent and abusive parents. What’s difficult is to assume the responsibilities the parents never met. But that’s precisely why the state took custody of the boy — to do a better job than a negligent parent.
Once again, the state proved to be deadly negligent.
Officials at the Florida Department of Children & Families often don’t seem to understand what their responsibilities are. Frequently, the minors in DCF custody are prescribed drugs without adequate evaluation. But no pill can heal the anxiety, depression and behavioral disorders of children and teenagers raised without love, much less in a violent environment.
An updated DCF study provided to The Miami Herald found that 1,695 teenage foster children, or 31 percent of all teenagers under DCF’s care, have been prescribed psychotropic drugs — a practice not advisable for minors, according to federal regulators. Worse still, 118 children younger than 6 receive mind-altering drugs.
”One gets the impression that these drugs are utilized as chemical straitjackets, not for therapeutic reasons,” said Toni Appel, a neuropsychologist and attorney who has examined cases of children under court-ordered psychiatric treatment.
It is doubtful that so many children in Florida have severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Rather, the majority are minors removed from their homes and carted from one foster home to another, from one school to another. In addition, they must make that emotional roller-coaster ride with precious little psychological aid.
To decide whether a child should be treated with psychopharmaceuticals when the parents are not involved in his care is a delicate task. To begin with, it is extremely complicated to diagnose a mental disorder if the patient cannot describe his or her symptoms adequately. Likewise, if he is not paid due attention during the treatment, he could suffer serious damage.
The Food and Drug Administration still does not authorize the pediatric use of most antipsychotics, although they can be dispensed off-label — meaning doctors can prescribe the drug even if not formally approved for that use. If a DCF social worker believes that a minor suffers from an emotional problem, the child is referred to a psychiatrist outside the agency, paid by Medicaid, which will prescribe the medicines.
According to a 2005 state law, the DCF first must obtain the consent of the minor’s parents. In the event that parental rights were terminated by the state, authorization from a judge is needed. But the law has been blatantly ignored. The DCF report reveals that in 14 percent of 20,235 cases analyzed there was no approval from the parents or the judicial system.
An example is the case of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, who in April hanged himself from a detachable metal shower cord in a foster home in Broward County. Less than a year earlier, he had been found in a car parked outside a restaurant. Next to him, his mother lay unconscious. A significant amount of narcotics was found in the car. After being placed in state custody, Gabriel was prescribed four medications, one of which can increase the risk of suicide in minors.
Did the state take into account that Gabriel had been sexually abused, that he knew that his mother would go to prison and that he had been moved from foster home to foster home in his last weeks?
A HARSH PILL
Instead of love and understanding, he got pills.
Psychiatric medications are a blessing for adults who need them. But for children they must be prescribed only in extreme circumstances and under strict supervision.
At the time of giving consent, there is always the chance that these children’s parents are drugged, don’t understand the risks, or simply don’t care and believe that, by cooperating, they will reclaim their children faster. For their part, the judges don’t always know the children’s medical history or have time to analyze their psychological background. To boot, the children are given neither voice nor choice, because they are not represented by an attorney and sometimes don’t even have a guardian ad-litem.
Society has an obligation to be more than a careless stepparent to these children, already neglected by their birth parents.