Florida’s mental health system for foster kids relies far too often on drugs, with little oversight, according to a draft report on the suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Admitting for the first time what critics have claimed for years, state child-welfare authorities say caregivers for children in state custody frequently use powerful mind-altering drugs to manage unruly kids, rather than treat their anger and sadness.
A panel of child-welfare experts, including two top administrators from the state Department of Children & Families, examined the death of a 7-year-old Broward foster child who was on psychotropic medications — without the required consent — when he hanged himself in a Margate home.
The panel’s report, expected to be released publicly later this month, says child welfare authorities too often rely on the potent medications to manage abused and neglected children — but fail to offer psychiatric treatment to help them overcome the trauma they suffered.
“Psychotherapeutic medications are often being used to help parents, teachers and other child workers quiet and manage, rather than treat, children,” the report says. It adds: “We have not clearly articulated the standard of psychiatric care expected for children in state foster care.”
Gabriel Myers hanged himself from a detachable shower hose April 16 at a Broward foster home. He had been in foster care since the previous June, when his mother had been found slumped in her car, surrounded by a stash of narcotics.
After The Miami Herald reported that Gabriel had been given several psychiatric drugs linked by federal regulators to potentially dangerous side effects, including suicide, DCF Secretary George Sheldon appointed a work group to study the care given to the boy, as well as the agency’s overall reliance on mind-altering drugs.
Sheldon said Wednesday that serious questions arose over why so many children in state care are on psychotropic medications — and why so many claim they feel fine once the drugs are discontinued.
“There was a lot of evidence presented to the work group — from kids and from folks in the system — raising a lot of concern over the purpose of these drugs,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon cautioned that the draft of the report is not final and “is subject to a lot of change” after work group members review and tweak it.
An overarching theme of the work group’s discussions, and of the draft report, was the lack of a parent figure — or “champion” — for Gabriel, who the report said had become “overwhelmed” by change and disruption. While the youngster’s life crumbled around him, caseworkers took copious notes and documented each new development.
But the report says, “there was no sense of urgency driving the agencies and individuals responsible for the welfare of Gabriel Myers,” and “no one person stepped forward to act as his parent.”
Though Gabriel was in regular contact with agency-referred therapists and a psychiatrist, the report says, the “intensive therapy” was aimed almost exclusively at preventing the reoccurrence of sexually inappropriate behaviors that may have resulted from his molestation when he was a small child in Ohio.
“Gabriel Myers was not provided specific and upfront therapy to deal with identified trauma, possible post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression,” the report says.
The use of psychiatric drugs among children in state care is widespread.
Records updated by DCF last week show that, among children in state care aged 6-12, more than 22 percent are being given psychiatric drugs.
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