Questioning the Use of Psychotropic Drugs in Foster Care

psych-drug-slideThe medication Eddie was given in foster care made him feel “like a sloth.”

“I was always falling asleep. I couldn’t stay up for a little bit or even to finish a test, so I kept getting held back in school,” he told Children’s Rights. “It was very hard.”

Eddie, who was removed from his violent home and placed in care at 6 years old, is far from the only foster child who has struggled with the effects of powerful psychotropic drugs. Kids in foster care systems throughout the United States are being prescribed the meds to help them cope with mental health issues like post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. And the side effects — such as drowsiness, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and weight gain — can be harsh.

The oversight — or lack of thereof — that child welfare systems have over the administration of the meds has become a hot button issue as more information has come to light about their use. In 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report revealing that 35 percent of foster kids were prescribed psychotropic drugs, compared to just 10 percent of other children, in the five states it studied. The report spurred national media attention in outlets like 20/20 onABC and NPR, and was the subject of a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing.

At the Senate hearing, a 12-year-old boy, who was put on 20 different drugs before his adoptive parents weaned him off in favor of therapy, shared his experience, and advice.

“Meds aren’t going to help a child with their problems. It is just going to sedate them, make them tired, make them forget it for a while, and then it comes back and it happens again,” Ke’onte Cook told lawmakers. “What I learned is that when you are taking therapy you talk about the deepest things, it hurts, then it comes back, but you can handle it better.”

Besides finding that foster kids like Ke’onte and Eddie are far more likely than kids outside of foster care to be prescribed psychotropic drugs, the GAO study also found that foster kids are more likely to be prescribed five or more psychotropic drugs at an age and at doses that exceed FDA approved levels. Some of the medications have not even been approved as safe and effective for children by the FDA.

“In some cases psychotropic medications can be warranted in combination with mental health services — but child welfare systems have a responsibility to provide rigorous oversight and give kids the best treatment to overcome the trauma they’ve lived through,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “We are fighting to ensure that happens.”
Children’s Rights is currently pushing for stronger management of the administration of psychotropic drugs to foster children in Massachusetts, just like we’ve secured in New Jersey, Michigan and Tennessee. The roadmaps for sweeping foster care reform that we negotiated in these states prohibit child welfare officials from using psychotropic medications as a method of discipline or control for any child. We also ensured that these states are required by force of law to hire medical directors — a position that didn’t previously exist — to monitor the usage of psychotropic drugs in care.

Eddie, who aged out of foster care at 18, is no longer on any psychotropic medications, and said he is “actually better without them.” He is focused on his future. “My plans are to finish school, go to college for a couple years, get a good, decent job, and settle down,” he said.

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