Category Archives: Orlando Sentinel

Doping up our children

Orlando Sentinel
Editorial
Doping up our children

The state’s Department of Children and Families is under fire again, and rightly so.

Recently, a task force issued its final report documenting how weak oversight and lax compliance with guidelines fostered a culture where officials often blindly doled out powerful drugs as chemical pacifiers to help caregivers manage difficult children.

These troubling concerns aren’t new to DCF. But in the wake of the withering report, DCF Secretary George Sheldon concedes lapses and vows to heed and fund task-force proposals.

Such accountability is encouraging. But we expected reform before. In 2003, the Statewide Advocacy Council report made similar findings, and concluded, “…unnecessary dispensing of psychotropic medication remains a threat to [foster children]. Until there is more information regarding the safety and efficiency of these drugs, Florida’s foster care children should be monitored closely.”

That report’s proposals were largely ignored. Now, six years later, only swift reforms and a strong mandate to comply with existing rules that govern psychotropic drugs will shelve suspicions that this is déjà vu all over again.

Gabriel Myers becomes the latest Florida foster child whose tragic end led to familiar calls for DCF reform. The boy was removed from his drug-addled mother and turned over to state custody on June 29, 2008. Gabriel hopscotched between a relative and a foster home over the next 10 months. While in state care, he received several psychotropic drugs without valid parental or court consent, as state law requires. One of the drugs, Symbyax, an adult antidepressant, can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.

On April 16, Gabriel put a shower cord around his neck in the bathroom of his Margate foster home.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Sheldon convened the Gabriel Myers Work Group to investigate the tragedy. The group’s 26-page report outlined 148 systemic breakdowns in Gabriel’s death.

It notes the egregious disregard of safeguards for foster children that are well “articulated in statute, administrative rule, and operating procedures.” Breakdowns in communication, advocacy, supervision, monitoring and oversight only exacerbated matters.

Gabriel was repeatedly evaluated while in care, and often saw therapists, including one who noted, “It is clear that this child is overwhelmed with change and possibly re-experiencing trauma.” Somehow, though, caregivers missed the red flags.

And the report backs child advocates who long have insisted the state overmedicates kids: “Psychotropic medications are at times being used to help parents, teachers, and other caregivers calm and manage, rather than treat, children.”

In Florida, 15.2 percent of foster kids take at least one psychotropic drug, compared with a 5 percent rate among the general population.

DCF must junk the “fix-it with pharmaceuticals” mentality that, for the sake of expediency, often skirts safer avenues for taming disorderly behavior. Adopting the task force’s call for “a higher requirement for due diligence prior to seeking approval for administering these drugs” would be a step forward.

The task force outlines a raft of reforms that include beefing up therapeutic services, adding court-appointed guardians, and bringing on a medical director to direct the use of psychotropic drugs.

Mr. Sheldon says he’ll free up resources within DCF to act on the suggestions. And despite austere budgets, he vows to cajole the Legislature to fund such options as behavioral therapy as an alternative to drug therapy. But a will to change must follow words.

Mr. Sheldon told the Fort Myers News-Press that in the past, “Regrettably, I’m afraid people said, ‘We dodged a bullet’ and it [reforms] never got out into the field. That cannot be the case this time.”

It better not. Or DCF almost assuredly in the months to come will experience another tragic case of déjà vu.

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Task force issues final report on boy’s suicide in Margate foster home

Orlando Sentinel

The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE – A Florida task force has issued its final report on the suicide of a 7-year-old boy who hung himself in a Margate foster home, determining proper procedures existed to prevent such problems but aren’t always followed.

The report says “core failures in the system…stem from lack of compliance with this framework and with failures in communication, advocacy, supervision, monitoring, and oversight.”

Gabriel Myers was on several powerful psychotropic medications with side effects including suicide when he used a shower hose to hang himself on April 16.

He was in three different foster homes, switched therapists, touched his classmates inappropriately and tried to strangle himself.

The panel found psychotropic medications should be better monitored, so children are not on them endlessly.

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Foster kids get mood-altering drugs without orders or consent, DCF finds

Orlando Sentinel
By Jon Burstein and Kate Santich | Staff Writers

Almost one of every six foster children on mood-altering drugs in Florida is being medicated without the court order or parental consent required by law, according to a study released Thursday by the state Department of Children and Families.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon acknowledged there was “no rational basis” for 433 foster children in Florida being given psychotropic drugs without the required documentation. He vowed that by next week, the agency would ensure that the children have parental consent to take the drugs or that their cases are scheduled to go before a judge.

The study is more fallout from last month’s suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, a South Florida boy who hanged himself in the bathroom of his foster home. At the time of his death, he had been prescribed two psychotropic drugs — Symbyax and Vyvanse — that had not been approved by either his parents or a judge.

It is not known whether the drugs contributed to his death, but DCF officials launched an investigation into how many children in the state’s care are prescribed such drugs, which include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and stimulants. The officials also examined whether proper consent had been obtained.

In Central Florida, 13 percent to 20 percent of foster kids receive psychotropic drugs. Most of the medicated are teenagers.

In comparison, about 5 percent of children in the general population are on some sort of psychotropic drug, said Rajiv Tandon, a University of Florida psychiatry professor examining Gabriel Myers’ death.

But consent is spotty, varying widely from one county to the next, depending on the agency contracted to oversee the foster children. In Volusia, for instance, fewer than 1 percent of cases have no record of parental or judicial approval. In Orange and Osceola counties, the figure is nearly 30 percent.

John Cooper, director of DCF’s central region, which includes Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and 12 other counties, said he was less concerned with the number of medicated children than with the effect of the drugs on those who take them and whether the children also are getting counseling.

“This is a vulnerable population,” Cooper said. “And we need to do a better job of tracking and monitoring these kids.”

At Community Based Care of Seminole — a private agency contracted by DCF to handle foster-care cases — CEO Glen Casel said the real lesson of Gabriel Myers’ suicide is for caseworkers and caretakers to treat each foster child as if he or she were their own.

“If my child were prescribed by a doctor to be put on a medication — or two or three or four medications — you’d have some explaining to do,” Casel said. “It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it, but I would have to be assured and comfortable that this was best for the long-term benefit of my child.”

Statewide, of the 20,235 foster children in the system, 2,669 of them — or 13 percent — are on the drugs, including 73 who are 5 or younger, the study found.

Child advocates long have been frustrated with the administering of psychotropic drugs to foster children, arguing that the medications are used more often to subdue children than to address their mental-health issues.

Jon Burstein of the ( Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel can be reached at jburstein@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4491. Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel can be reached at ksantich@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5503.

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