News Service of Florida
A panel of lawmakers is exploring remedies to shortfalls at the Department of Children and Families that led to the apparent suicide of a 7-year-old Margate boy last spring and rampant use of high powered drugs to regulate the behavior of foster children.
The head of a DCF-appointed work group presented its findings to the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Tuesday, eliciting outrage among committee members over the number of children who were being treated with psychotropic drugs rather than therapy.
Committee Chair Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, accused the child welfare system of putting children in a “chemical straight jacket” until they are 18-years-old and are removed from the system.
“It is hard for me to accept and I don’t accept that the only way to reach a 7-year-old child is with psychotropic drugs,” Storms said.
Storms said lawmakers this year will work on changes based on the work group’s findings, though no legislation has been drafted yet.
The group, which released its findings in late August, found 148 problems within the system and suggested that many children were being drugged for behavioral problems, even if they were not necessarily big enough to require psychotropic drugs.
The report stemmed from the death of Gabriel Myers, a 7 -year-old who hanged himself with a shower hose in his Broward County foster home. DCF investigators found Myers had been on psychotropic drugs, but that doctors had not received proper consent to prescribe them and that the prescriptions were not accurately reflected in his case file.
The work group studying the Myers death and use of psychotropic drugs on foster children found that about 15 percent of foster children were on mood or mind-altering medications. However, only 5 percent of all children nationally are on the drugs.
The research found that children as young as 2-years-old have been treated with mind-altering drugs.
But that wasn’t the only problem facing DCF. Secretary George Sheldon told committee members that when he originally looked to see how many foster children were on the drugs, the number was 1,900. But, he later found that not all foster kids on psychotropic drugs were actually listed in the department records. The actual number was more than 3,100.
Sheldon said that the issue of children on psychotropic drugs was the “most critical” facing the agency.
“Gabriel Myers was a huge wake up to the system,” Sheldon said. “This little boy was being flooded with services, but nobody was acting as the child’s parent.”
In Myers’ case, and in several other cases , the group found that all of the different people from child services were not communicating with each other.
“Reports on his behavior, medication, and life changes were not fully and regularly shared among those charged with ensuring his welfare,” the Myers report reads.
Jim Sewell, former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, chaired the work group and told lawmakers that his group would be issuing a series of recommendations by Nov. 19.
Storms said following the release of the recommendations, the committee will start working on a bill based on those proposals.