Daytona Beach News Journal
July 11, 2009

Tragedy should help shape foster-care drug policy

Florida failed 7-year-old Gabriel Myers.

It wasn't for lack of attention. In the last few months of Gabriel's short, unhappy life, he saw multiple caseworkers, therapists and psychiatrists. He was taking an ever-changing cocktail of mood-altering drugs. And more than a dozen times, people asked him if he was thinking of hurting himself or committing suicide.

Gabriel always said no. Even after he was ejected from a foster home he liked, even as a therapist documented that the boy was "very emotionally fragile" and "under severe stress," the boy denied having suicidal thoughts. And despite the fact that several of the medications he was taking came with black-box warnings that included a tendency to increase suicidal tendencies, the state-paid caregivers always seemed to believe him.

On April 16 -- a day after he broke down at school -- Gabriel locked himself in the bathroom of his new foster home in Margate and hanged himself.

These details are known because the Department of Children and Families is being uncommonly open with the sad facts surrounding Gabriel's death, posting hundreds of pages of related documents on its Web site. Though the agency doesn't yet know whether drugs contributed to Gabriel's death, DCF is also reviewing medication policies for very young children. In a study released last week, the department looked at files for 268 children in state care, aged 6-7, who were prescribed behavioral drugs. The results were disturbing:

  • Nearly half of the children in the group were taking two or more drugs at the same time. In 86 percent of the cases, the doctor prescribing the drug didn't complete a required treatment plan.
  • In more than 75 percent of the cases, caseworkers didn't give parents or guardians proper information about the effects of the drugs their charges were taking, and didn't give prescribing physicians full information about the child.
  • In 58 percent of the cases, the state didn't try to get consent from a parent or guardian before seeking court permission to drug a child. In 40 percent of the cases, children were being given an incorrect dosage.

The state may never know exactly why Gabriel decided to take his own life. But it is right to overhaul its protections for foster children with mental illness. Proper medication can make a significant difference for a child with behavioral or emotional problems. Yet many of the drugs prescribed haven't been tested on children as young as 6 or 7.

State officials are also asking themselves whether the child-safety system is relying too heavily on psychotropic drugs to make troubled, traumatized foster children more manageable. They are reviewing every case where state policy might not have been followed. And they're looking for ways to avoid tragedy in the future.

Give DCF credit for staring a horribly difficult problem in its face, and for conducting what appears to be an open, thorough investigation intended to make the system safer for all foster children.

"Gabriel Myers . . . is watching us to see how well we have learned from his life and his death. We are not going to let him down again," DCF Secretary George Sheldon said in May, announcing the systemwide investigation into the use of drugs in the foster-care system.

It is too late to save Gabriel, but the 20,000 other children in Florida's foster care system deserve to see that promise kept.

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