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A Merry-Go-Round of Psychotropic Drugs Can Destroy a Childhood

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When K.T. first entered foster care in 1997, she was six years old and drug free.

Oklahoma child welfare officials placed her in state custody because her father had physically and sexually abused her. No doubt, K.T. brought with her a disturbing history and some heavy problems.

At the same time, there’s little question that Oklahoma’s child welfare agency exacerbated her problems, with its reckless medical treatment and its negligence in planning for her future, putting K.T. on the road toward a potentially deadening dependency on psychotropic drugs.

K.T.’s first year in foster care was a nightmarish blur — five different placements, one a six-week stay in a dangerous short-term group shelter. Shipping a child in foster care from one home to another can cause tremendous harm, and that’s exactly what happened to K.T. in the following years.

Behavioral problems quickly, and almost inevitably, ensued — K.T. developed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, detachment disorder, and depression, among other mental problems. The likelihood of her finding a permanent, loving family shriveled.

By the end of 2002, records show that doctors had prescribed K.T. her first psychotropic medications: Risperdal and Depakote. As noted in our previous post, Risperdal is one of the most common antidepressants prescribed to children. It causes sadness and anxiety, triggers weight gain, and can even cause young boys to grow breasts. Depakote is supposed to treat bipolar depression — and has caused liver cancer in young children.

The use of psychotropic medications often entails a trial-and-error process. Some medications work for some people while other meds don’t. In K.T.’s case, child welfare officials greatly compromised that delicate process by bouncing her from one foster care home to another, making consistent medical care an impossibility.

Over the next seven years, doctors prescribed some of the most powerful psychotropics available, usually more than one at a time: Seroquel (antipsychotic), Abilify (antidepressant), Prozac (antidepressant), Trazodone(antidepressant), Thorazine (antipsychotic), Methylin (stimulant), and Invega (antipsychotic).

In 2009, the year K.T. aged out of foster care, her doctors still had her on three separate psychotropic medications, but with no plan for her ongoing medical treatment. K.T. faced a bleak future with no permanent family and no support system in place.

It’s difficult to definitively identify one type of abuse as more damaging to a young person than another. K.T.’s family certainly harmed her in horrifying ways. But the pharmaceutical excesses she’s experienced while in the hands of Oklahoma child welfare officials will likely play a lasting role in the obstacles and challenges she’ll face as an adult.

We will prevail in Oklahoma and force child welfare officials to take far better care of the abused and neglected kids in its dangerous foster care system. As with our other victories — in Michigan, Tennessee, and New Jersey — Children’s Rights will insist that Oklahoma use psychotropic medications responsibly, and not as a form of discipline or control, under the supervision of a medical director dedicated to the health of kids in foster care.

Children like K.T. carry the weight of adult-sized issues. The solution can’t just be a pill.

READ PART 1: Psychotropic Drugs: A Troubling Staple of Foster Care
READ PART 3: Freed from a Pharmaceutical Fog, A Young Man’s Life Changes