Regulations sought for foster kids prescribed psychiatric drugs

Miami Herald

In the wake of a Broward child’s death, state lawmakers will consider a bill designed to make it harder for child welfare workers to use mental health drugs to control foster kids.

Florida lawmakers will once again consider a measure to rein in the use of psychiatric drugs among foster children in the wake of last year’s death of a 7-year-old Broward boy who was on a cocktail of mood-altering drugs.

A new bill, filed Friday by state Sen. Ronda Storms, a Brandon Republican, would, among other things, require that foster children assent to the use of psychiatric drugs. The proposed law would require caseworkers to explain to children, in a manner they can understand, why the drugs are necessary and what risks they carry.

“It’s a huge step forward for the children of Florida,” Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, said of the provision. “It’s integral to effective treatment for children to be involved at a developmentally appropriate level.”

The requirement that foster kids be involved in their own treatment was one of scores of recommendations made by a child welfare work group of administrators from the Department of Children & Families, doctors and children’s advocates who studied the death of Gabriel Myers last April.

Gabriel, originally from Ohio, entered state care in June 2008 when his mother was found slumped in her car in a restaurant parking lot — with a narcotic pill bottles surrounding her. Gabriel hanged himself on April 16, using a retractable shower cord as a noose.

In the aftermath, The Miami Herald reported that the boy had been prescribed several anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs in the months before his death. Most of the drugs have not been approved for use with children, and some have been linked to serious side effects, including an increased risk of suicide.

While Storm’s bill tracks most of the work group’s findings, it differs in some respects. One major difference: The work group wanted each child being administered psychotropic drugs to have the benefit of a lawyer at all court appearances.

Storms’ bill requires the state to appoint guardians ad litem, or volunteer lay guardians. Storms said the guardians are qualified for the role because they already are involved in the children’s lives.

Rosenberg, who was a member of the Gabriel Myers Work Group, said “the work group concluded that attorneys are best suited to protect children’s interests when prescribing medication,” she said.

The bill would also:

• Prohibit children in state care from being involved in clinical trials designed to determine the safety or efficacy of drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA.

• Require an independent medication review before psychiatric drugs can be administered to children 10 or younger.

• Require mental-health professionals to prepare an overall treatment plan, including the use of counseling and therapy, when children are prescribed psychiatric drugs.

“We want to give a preference to behavioral therapy,” said Storms, the bill’s sponsor. “We’re not going to just drug them through their childhood and adolescence.”

Storms said she thought the prescribing of such drugs has become a crutch for therapists, who are eschewing traditional couch chats with children. Research shows, she said, that some doctors are writing one prescription for a child every three minutes.

DCF administrators have supported the legislation, which marks the second time this decade that lawmakers have sought to crack down on mental-health drug use among kids in state care.

“With young kids, we really need to err on the side of caution,” said DCF Secretary George Sheldon, who has supported both the work group and the legislation.

State Sen. Nan Rich, a Sunrise Democrat who is vice chair of the children’s committee, said the bill will fail if lawmakers decline to set aside enough money to pay for it — especially the provision that requires guardians for foster kids who are prescribed drugs.

Miami Herald staff writer Robert Samuels contributed to this report from Tallahassee.

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