Maine fails to look out for children while on psychotropic drugs

Most children have parents or family to watch after them and keep them safe. People who help them get ready for school each morning. Someone to make their favorite meals. And when their child is unwell or in need of care, they take them to doctor and counseling appointments and actively advocate for them and protect them. But too often children living in the foster care system don’t have a dedicated loved one looking out for them.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that up to 80% of children entering the child welfare system have significant mental health needs. And as we know from our case in Missouri, many children in state care are administered dangerous psychotropic drugs without adequate oversight, often as a way to control behavior that is a manifestation of the severe trauma they have endured. 

Maine has been heavily criticized for having one of the worst child welfare systems in the nation when it comes to safeguards and oversight to manage the use of psychotropic medications. And although for well over a decade state officials have acknowledged the serious risks, they have continued to allow psychotropic drugs to be unnecessarily and unsafely administered without proper monitoring. That’s why, when all other attempts had failed to keep kids safe, Children’s Rights filed a lawsuit.

Fighting for children like Bryan C

One of the children named in the case is seven-year-old Bryan C. He has been administered at least four different psychotropic medications concurrently while in state care, at high dosages for a child of his age and size. As a result of inadequate safeguards to monitor and manage these medications, he has suffered a litany of harms and adverse effects. 

A few weeks after beginning one drug, he expressed his first of many suicidal ideations and threats— threatening to kill himself with a toy gun. And at school, he would repeatedly bang his head against the wall. His medications made him withdrawn, anxious, and irritable. After starting another drug he gained approximately 25 pounds without any discernible benefit. Like many children on these medications, Bryan also suffers from sleep deprivation as a side effect. He was so tired that he often fell sound asleep on a couch in his classroom. This fatigue, along with difficulty in focusing and a lack of mental clarity, has significantly disrupted his learning and development. In Bryan’s own words, his “brain doesn’t work.” At age 7, he cannot write his own name.

A call for change

The complaint and request for class action call on the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to account for a continued gap in the system between what the state believes to be important to keep children safe when using powerful psychotropic drugs, and what is actually happening to harm children.

Too many children on psychotropic drugs have incomplete medical records on file that lack key medical and mental health information to make decisions. Furthermore, the state does not require adherence to an informed consent policy before kids are dosed with dangerous and life-altering medications — failing to provide youth with the proper information on the benefits and risks before a prescription is authorized. Nor does the state require that a child psychiatrist review the psychotropic medications and cocktails administered to children

The list of concerns for children is extensive

Children, like Bryan C., are taking heavy cocktails of psychotropic medications that can and often do, lead to serious, life-altering physical, and psychological harms. 

They are at a heightened risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiac conditions, irreversible movement disorders, aggression, unhealthy levels of weight gain, and organ damage. They may also experience loss of emotions, all-day drowsiness, loss of sleep, and are more likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts. Psychotropic drugs can make life intolerable for many people, especially for developing children. 

Without proper systems in place to create treatment plans and monitor each child’s mental health and prescribed medications, hundreds of children as young as preschoolers in Maine’s foster care system remain at an unreasonable risk of serious harm with each passing day.

It is time the state create meaningful systems to protect the health and well-being of children in foster care.