Category Archives: Jacksonville Observer

Report Rules Myers Cause of Death ‘Undetermined’

The Jacksonville Observer

News Service of Florida

A 7-year-old Margate boy being treated with powerful psychotropic drugs may not have intentionally killed himself last spring when he hanged himself by a shower hose in his foster family’s home, a medical examiner concluded in a recently released report.

The report, released Thursday, states that though Gabriel Myers was responsible for the actions that led to his death, he never expressed any thoughts of suicide to psychiatrists who interviewed him several times.

“He has a history of self-inflicted injury for secondary gains,” wrote Dr. Stephen Cina, Broward County’s deputy chief medical examiner. “In fact, at one point he injured his own neck to mimic strangulation in order to get other children in trouble. An argument could be made that his hanging was accidental, an attention-getting act gone awry.”

Myers had been bounced from home to home, disciplined for behavioral problems and forbidden to see his mom.

The case drew outrage from child advocates last spring, when Department of Children and Families officials released the information about the case. Myers had been on heavy doses of psychotropic drugs, yet those medications were not accurately reflected in his case file.

Psychotropic medications include a wide range substances used to treat psychotic behavior, depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior and attention deficit disorder and include such brand name drugs as Haldol, Prozac, Valium and Ritalin.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon appointed a work group to investigate the case and the use of psychotropic drugs on foster children. The results were even startling to the department.

The group found that about 15 percent of foster children in Florida were being prescribed mood or mind-altering medications. However, only 5 percent of all children nationally are on such drugs. The research found that foster children as young as 2-years-old have been treated with psychotropic drugs.

And in many cases, the children had been put on the drugs without parental consent or judicial order.

Former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Jim Sewell, who chaired the work group, told the News Service Friday that he has begun to review the medical examiner’s report, but he is also waiting for the police to release a final report on Myers’ death as well.

Regardless of whether Myers’ death was an intentional suicide or not, Sewell said it brought to light problems within the child welfare system that need to be addressed. The final report of the Gabriel Myers Work Group illustrated a complete breakdown between different services within the system.

Psychiatrists, school officials and foster care officials all noted behavioral problems in Myers and attempted to help. But none of the people communicated with each other, a repeated pattern, the group found.

“The greatest difference with Gabriel was that kid was crying for help in a lot of different ways,” Sewell said. “And you had a lot of people who wanted to give it to him, but they weren’t coordinating it well.”

The issue and work group report has received legislative attention as well. Lawmakers have held two committee meetings on the issue, one in Tallahassee and one in Tampa. Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said last month the Senate committee on Children, Family and Elder Affairs will be introducing legislation related to the issue in the coming months.

The work group will release its recommendations on Nov. 19, Sewell said. He said the majority of them will likely focus on integrating services within the system so that, hopefully, no other children will be in the same position as Myers.

“You had a lot of good attempts by a lot of different agencies to help him and they weren’t successful,” Sewell said.

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Myers Report Draws Anger, Action from Lawmakers

Jacksonville Observer
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.

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DCF Changing Culture

Jacksonville Observer
News Service of Florida

Despite recent critical reports, Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon said this week that he is convinced the beleaguered agency is beginning to change a long-engrained culture.

A recently-completed internal report raises questions as to whether the agency has the right kind of employees who are willing to use common sense to avoid ongoing mistakes, such as one that came to light with the suicide of a 7-year-old child in South Florida. These mistakes wind up costing taxpayers millions of dollars because the state ends up settling lawsuits that accuse the agency of negligence.

A work group set up by Sheldon to study the incident surrounding the death of Gabriel Myers concluded earlier this month that the state failed to follow laws and rules regarding the use of psychotropic drugs and that warning signs were missed that could have prevented his death.

“I think we are making some progress,’’ insisted Sheldon, who has been secretary for the past year after succeeding his boss Bob Butterworth. “I really think that the culture has changed. We are becoming innovative and thinking outside the box.’’

Sheldon said one key change is that he’s been urging employees at the department to focus on what’s best for the child, not whether a rule is being followed.

“Don’t be so driven by rules that you miss the goal,’’ said Sheldon. “Figure out ultimately what is the right thing to do. Then figure out how the rules apply.’’

That was one of the key criticisms found in an internal report written by two attorneys who worked for DCF. The 24-page report, submitted in late May but made public just recently, concluded the department may find itself continually embroiled in litigation over mistakes made by the child welfare agency. It said parts of the agencies were isolated from one another and that employees too often did not question what is going on.

“The department’s operational improvements are frequently a reaction to crisis and headlines rather than a product of a state of continual alert to systemic problems,’’ states the report written by Neil Skene and Florence Synder. Skene, a former reporter, is a consultant with the agency, while Snyder recently left DCF.

The report, which was largely anecdotal, briefly touched on the Myers case but it also highlighted other incidents at DCF including:

-A DCF employee was fired for bringing sweets to her elderly father at a nursing home because it was deemed she was abusing her father. When it got up to the secretary level, a decision was made to settle the case and to offer to rehire the employee.

-DCF sued a caregiver over $1,441 in caregiver funds which accidentally went to the grandmother instead of the uncle of a child who shared responsibility. The grandmother actually reported the mistake and was told by a caseworker to cash the check. The woman wound up hiring a lawyer, Tana Sachs Copple, the daughter of Rep. Maria Sachs, to represent her.

“Many of our adversaries at this point would have called a newspaper or television station in outrage,’’ states the report, which notes that Copple called Snyder. Within hours, the lawsuit had been withdrawn.

-DCF wound up reaching a settlement to keep an employee in the Orlando region after spending a year trying to terminate the person at the urging of top regional officials.

“What made this employee salvageable today when she wasn’t a year ago?” questions the report.

The report concludes that improvements have been made at DCF but that more needs to be done to transform the agency in order to avoid future lawsuits.

The agency has moved aggressively to settle lingering lawsuits – even for large amounts. Earlier this summer it agreed to pay $4 million to settle a lawsuit filed by two children who had been placed in foster care in Hernando County where the parents wound up starving one of the children. Since the case was a federal lawsuit the settlement does not require legislative approval.

The agency set up a “litigation reduction’’ team and in the 2007-08 fiscal year DCF settled a total of 81 cases at an average cost of nearly $125,000, which was actually a drop of more than $112,000 per claim from the previous year. But at the same time state lawmakers have wound up approving millions in claims bills associated with previous DCF cases.

“Gov. Crist made it very clear that if you make a mistake, admit it and try to fix it,’’ said Sheldon.

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Drugs and Foster Care: Myers Report Critical of DCF

Jacksonville Observer

A draft report written by a work group investigating the April 2009 suicide of a Margate boy says children in state care are often being given mind-altering drugs for behavioral problems instead of being treated.

The draft report, released Thursday, stems from the death of Gabriel Myers, a 7-year-old who hanged himself with a shower hose in his Broward County foster home. A DCF investigation found that Myers had been on psychotropic drugs, but that proper consent had not been obtained regarding the treatment and that the prescribed drugs were not accurately reflected in his case files.

Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon appointed a work group to study the Myers death and the use of psychotropic drugs on foster kids. Earlier this summer, the department revealed that 3,020 of 19,761, or about 15 percent, of foster children were found to be on the high power drugs.

And now, the Myers work group is saying that many children might be receiving drugs unnecessarily.

“Psychotherapeutic medications are often being used to help parents, teachers, and other caregivers calm and manage, rather than treat children,” the report reads.

Sheldon told reporters earlier this year that he was not anti-drug, but that the Myers’ work group findings regarding the number of foster children on psychotropic drugs raised serious questions.

In Myers’ case, the group found that no individual was looking out for his needs and that there were numerous red flags signaling problems. However, they were not addressed. The report also criticizes the individuals and agencies involved in Myers’ cares.

“Reports on his behavior, medication, and life changes were not fully and regularly shared among those charged with ensuring his welfare,” it reads.

The draft report made nine suggestions, including that the doctor prescribing the medicine should have ongoing communication with the child. It also suggests that youth and families be consistently provided with continuous information regarding mental health disorders and treatments.

“These principles should be accepted and clearly articulated as necessary and appropriate for the treatment of children within Florida’s child welfare system,” the report concluded.

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Report: More Than 13% of Florida’s Foster Kids on Drugs

The Jacksonville Observer
Austin Cassidy

A Department of Children and Families report has found that 2,669 Florida foster kids – just over 13 percent of children in the system – are on psychotropic drugs.

The report comes as a result of the death of a 7-year-old Margate boy, who apparently hanged himself, while under treatment with psychotropic drugs. A DCF investigation of Gabriel Myers’ death found that a proper consent form had not been signed regarding the boy’s treatment and that his medication was not reflected in his case files.

“It is inconceivable to me, even now, how a child so young could have made a deliberate or conscious decision to end his life,” said Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon.

Following Myers’ death, Sheldon ordered that the files of all foster children be reviewed to ensure that the agency’s case files accurately reflect the number of children who were on psychotropic drugs.

The department found that 2,669 of Florida foster children, or about 13 percent, are on one or more psychotropic medications, including 73 children (2.75 percent) who are 5-years-old or younger. Additionally, more than 16 percent of the total number were on the medication without parental consent or judicial order.

For the general population, about 4 percent to 5 percent of children are placed on psychotropic drugs.

Sheldon said the agency’s attorneys and case managers are currently working to have consent papers signed by guardians and to have those children re-evaluated by physicians.

The department is not yet setting out any disciplinary actions for guardians or caseworkers who may have slipped up in the process, but Sheldon is not ruling it out in the future. He also acknowledged the concerns of many child advocates that children are being drugged simply to make them more manageable.

“I’m not a psychiatrist and I’m not anti-medication, but I have serious questions,” Sheldon said.

The issue of psychotropic medication for children has come up frequently in the Legislature, and Sheldon said he has been in contact with legislative leaders and other lawmakers about the report.

The work group will continue to meet until about July and will issue a series of recommendations to the agency. Agency officials are still working out a time line for the department to finish a quality assurance evaluation of the data they have received regarding the system’s foster children.

“I want a sense of urgency throughout this, but I also want to get this right,” Sheldon said.

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