Panel probes DCF drug rules

Tampa Tribune

By SHERRI ACKERMAN
sackerman@tampatrib.com

TAMPA – Despite his 12 years’ experience with Florida’s child welfare system, local child psychiatrist Rahul Mehra had never seen the document required by law to track psychotherapeutic treatment of children in foster care.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this,” Mehra said Monday, holding up a Department of Children & Families form that verifies, among other medical information, a guardian’s consent for a child to receive drugs for depression, ADHD, autism and other disorders.

“That’s quite a statement,” said Michael Haney, who’s serving on a panel convened in the wake of a 7-year-old Broward County boy’s suicide.

Gabriel Myers of Margate hanged himself at his foster home April 16. After his death, state investigators learned the boy had been prescribed several psychotropic drugs, including Symbyax, which has not been approved for children.

Investigators also discovered that DCF’s database failed to show there was no authorization for Gabriel to receive prescribed psychotropic drugs. That led to a statewide review of foster children receiving similar drugs. Results were disappointing.

Of 2,669 children receiving such controversial prescriptions, 433 did not have parental consent or court orders allowing such medication. Gabriel was among them.

His mother, who had a history of substance abuse, signed a standard medical form. But that does not meet the stringent requirements demanded by law to track children given psychotropic drugs.

Despite the error, Jim Sewell, chairman of the panel, assigned as chairman of the work group, said he didn’t believe the state’s investigation would show the drugs alone led to Gabriel’s death.

“I don’t think the direct cause was drugs,” said Sewell, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement assistant commissioner. “But he may have become predisposed to depression” because of the drugs.

Records show Gabriel had been sexually assaulted by a 12-year-old boy in Ohio. He also had displayed serious behavioral issues, including inappropriately touching other children.

His foster father had recently punished Gabriel, who was told he would not participate in a planned family vacation and could not take toys to school, Sewell said. The boy also had moved two or three times in two weeks and had just lost his psychotherapist, who moved out of the country.

Front-line workers missed opportunities to help this child, Sewell said, either because they didn’t understand the process or they didn’t have time to verify medical treatment.

Workers also expressed frustration with the state’s computer database, known as Florida Safe Families Network, which is supposed to help caseworkers and supervisors monitor children’s well-being. State officials have said they are addressing those issues.

Oversight was another matter, Sewell said. He wasn’t surprised about Mehra’s revelation that he had never seen the state’s form required for children receiving psychotherapeutic treatment.

The private agencies that contract with DCF to provide local foster care and adoption services are going to have to be more accountable, he said.

The work group, handpicked by DCF Secretary George Sheldon and his predecessor, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, meets again June 18 in Fort Lauderdale. Sheldon will use the information to overhaul the state’s policy on psychotropic drug use within the foster care system.

Researcher Buddy Jaudon contributed to this report. Reporter Sherri Ackerman can be reached at (813) 259-7144.

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