August 31, 2009
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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