By KELLI KENNEDY
Associated Press Writer
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It is unclear whether powerful psychotropic medications played a role in the death of a 7-year-old foster child, and the boy may have hanged himself for attention, according to a medical examiner’s report released Thursday.
Gabriel Myers locked himself in a bathroom and hanged himself with a shower cord in April, but the report classifies his death as undetermined. The report says it’s possible Gabriel did not intend to kill himself and did not fully understand the finality of his actions.
“His psychiatric history suggests that this fatality may represent a tragically flawed attempt of self-injury for secondary gain,” Dr. Stephen Cina, Broward County’s deputy chief medical examiner, wrote in the report.
Gabriel was on several powerful psychotropic medications, including Symbyax, before his death. That drug carries a U.S. Food and Drug Administration “black box” label warning for children’s safety and increased risk of suicidal thinking. It is not approved for use with young children. But doctors often prescribe them off label.
The boy’s death prompted debate at the state’s child welfare agency about stricter rules for prescribing powerful antidepressants and other drugs to foster children. The drugs affect the central nervous system and can change behavior or perception. They are prescribed for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions. Some are used to alleviate pain.
Critics say the drugs are overused as a chemical restraint for unruly children. A report by the Department of Children and Families released earlier this year indicates the 2,699 children taking psychotropic drugs account for 13 percent of all Florida children in out-of-home foster care. That compares with only an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent of children in the general population.
A records check showed that 433 of those children, or 16 percent, had not had their drugs approved by parents or court orders.
“Psychotherapeutic medications are often being used to help parents, teachers and other child workers quiet and manage, rather than treat, children,” according to an August report released by a panel that studied the Gabriel’s death.
DCF Secretary George Sheldon has said he may recommend further review for all children in state custody on such medications and the appointment of a new in-house state medical director to keep tabs on cases.
The task force also said case workers, doctors and teachers failed Gabriel at several points along the way and ignored warning signs. He was in three different foster homes, switched therapists and medications, and touched classmates in a sexually inappropriate way. He also tried to strangle himself in December, leaving noticeable red marks and scratches on his neck.
Gabriel also had several blunt force injuries at the time of his death, including bruises on his knees, thighs and forehead, according to the report.