Critics are questioning an amendment to a bill designed to protect foster children from being inappropriately medicated with mental-health drugs.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
One of the largest providers of inpatient psychiatric care for Florida foster kids successfully pushed for an amendment to a bill that will make it easier for group homes and treatment centers to begin medicating foster children without the consent of a parent or judge.
Psychiatric Solutions, which operates 13 residential treatment programs in Florida, including three in Broward County, proposed an amendment to state Sen. Ronda Storms’ bill that will allow the company, and others like it, to administer mental-health drugs to young foster children for three days without the consent of a parent or judge. The legislation was prompted by the 2009 death of a 7-year-old Margate foster child, Gabriel Myers.
Under current law, and under the bill that Storms, a Valrico Republican, proposed, children younger than age 11 in the care of the Department of Children & Families cannot be given psychiatric drugs without the consent of a parent, or a state judge in cases where the child’s parents have lost their parental rights.
In her bill, Storms proposes that caregivers for foster children must present a “compelling government interest” that medication is in the “child’s best interest.” The bill requires DCF to get an independent review in order to medicate children younger than 11.
In an e-mail to DCF’s legislative affairs director, Jim R. Henry, the director of Manatee Palms Youth Services, which is owned by Psychiatric Solutions, suggests that the state has, by definition, a compelling interest in allowing children to be medicated at treatment centers, since the kids already are presumed to be mentally ill.
Jeff Turiczek, who runs Manatee Palms, wrote in a March 26 e-mail that the amendment “basically [makes] the case that by the admissions requirements into those facilities the compelling governmental interest has been met.” In other words, a child entering a treatment center or therapeutic group home already has been diagnosed with a mental illness, and therefore may need to be medicated. Turiczek did not return calls seeking comment.
Storms said Friday she did not amend her bill to benefit the company. “It is true lobbyists come to see me,” Storms said. “No one said, hey will you do this from PsychSolutions, or whatever. I’m not trying to do it for any singe entity’s benefit. I am saying I want to fend off as much of the opposition as I can, so it gets through.”
Storms’ bill requires that doctors receive informed consent from a parent or guardian before administering mental-health drugs.
But the bill, as amended by Storms on Tuesday, makes exceptions: Doctors may begin the use of psychiatric drugs, without consent or a court order, if a child is in a mental hospital, a crisis stabilization unit, a residential treatment center or therapeutic group home. In such settings, DCF must seek a court order to administer the drugs within three days of beginning the medication.
Critics of the amendment note that children in such institutional settings are the most at risk of being inappropriately medicated.
In May 2009, during DCF’s investigation into the use of psychotropic drugs, the agency reported that 26 percent of children in group homes or other institutional settings were being given mental-health drugs, compared to 21 percent of children in foster homes and 4 percent of children living with relatives.
Jim Sewell, a special assistant to DCF Secretary George Sheldon who chaired a task force last year that looked into the use of mental-health drugs among foster kids, said supporters of the amendment had not spoken to him about it. “It was kind of a surprise,” he said.
“The language can be better, a lot of us believe. But rule-making authority will enable us to put things in place that ensure the protection of kids,” Sewell said.
Another member of the Gabriel Myers Work Group has expressed misgivings about the amendment. Gabriel died a year ago Friday after hanging himself in a foster home shower. He had been prescribed several mental-health drugs in the months before his death, including anti-depressants linked to an increased risk of suicide among children.
“The fact that a child needs residential treatment is not per se sufficient to say they need medication,” said Robin Rosenberg of Florida’s Children First. “I think there is too much potential for abuse.”
Storms, who has been extremely vocal about her concern that doctors are relying far too heavily on drugs to manage troubled foster kids without first attempting other methods, said doctors still will have to seek consent from a judge. Storms said the bill will better protect children than current law.
She said she added the amendment to drum up more support for the bill, as she had received a number of calls from concerned treatment centers that they would not be able to medicate if a child were pulling out their hair, cutting themselves, or banging their head on a table without end.
Miami Herald staff writer Robert Samuels contributed to this report.