Florida panel wants tougher rules on drugs for foster kids

Florida Times Union

Florida panel wants tougher rules on drugs for foster kids
Task force investigating boy’s suicide is making final recommendations.
By Brandon Larrabee

TALLAHASSEE — A task force investigating the apparent suicide of a 7-year-old foster child approved a list of nearly 100 recommendations concerning the use of psychiatric medications by foster children Thursday as the examination of the hanging death of Gabriel Myers continues.

The panel called for several measures to toughen accountability in the dispensing of psychotropic drugs and making sure the medications aren’t the only part of a child’s therapy.

Members of the working group also called for the Legislature to devote more resources, including the creation of a chief medical officer for the Department of Children & Families, to keep an eye on treatment for foster children.

“We need to have a better system of accountability over children who are being taken care of,” said Jim Sewell, former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and head of the task force. “… If we’re serious about making sure we’re taking care of children, we’ve got to make sure that we’re devoting funding to it.”

The recommendations include calling for tighter oversight by local DCF workers of the nonprofit organizations that handle foster care services and increased scrutiny from the agency’s central office. The panel also suggests making sure that caseworkers and caregivers get second opinions for the use of certain types and frequencies of medications.

Sewell said the panel’s recommendations, which are being put into final form after an hours-long meeting Thursday to hammer out the details, focus less on whether the psychiatric medications are over-prescribed than whether they are “properly prescribed.”

“We don’t say the drugs are completely bad,” Sewell said. “Medications are useful … when they’re part of dealing with the child’s overall issues.”

But Sewell said part of the solution is making sure the department employees follow existing laws and rules.

“The framework’s in place,” he said.

The use of the drugs and whether the agency was obtaining proper consent from parents or courts entered the spotlight when, in the aftermath of Gabriel’s death, the department revealed that more than 3,000 foster kids were taking the medications without the legally required permission.

While the major recommendations for the Legislature involve what Sewell described as “tweaks” to the law and more resources for monitoring the use of the drugs, lawmakers are likely to more closely examine the use of psychiatric medications for foster children.

Members of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee from both parties pledged this month to toughen laws and rules for prescribing psychiatric drugs to children in the wake of Gabriel’s death.

“We’ve got a lot deeper issues than the medical director,” Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville and a member of the committee, said Thursday.

He said lawmakers could move around funding to provide the necessary money for things like the medical position, but also wanted assurances that there would be accountability for failures like Gabriel’s death.

“We need to find out what the department is going to do about this to makes sure there won’t be another Gabriel Myers situation down the line,” Hill said.

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