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Foster kids say medication is overprescribed

LEGISLATIVE MEETING: Youths and graduates of the system offer alternatives.

Before a roomful of important adults, foster kids and graduates of the system talked about being put on powerful psychiatric drugs and undergoing "treatment" when what might have helped more was a chance for a regular life with sports and clubs and jobs.

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Friday's day-long legislative meeting drew a number of state officials, lawmakers and advocates, and focused on how to improve Alaska foster care.

In May, a group of foster care youth and those who have aged out came up with eight ways to improve the system. Among the identified problems: Overprescribed psychiatric drugs.

Too many foster children are prescribed psychiatric drugs, the kids said. They are labeled as disturbed, defiant or anxious when in reality they are just reacting to the trauma of their broken families and the difficulties of living in state custody.

Candice Tucker remembered when she first went into foster care two years ago, at age 15, because her mother couldn't take care of her.

"I was freaking out because I had just gotten into care. I was having a hard time so they thought I needed residential," Tucker, now 17, said.

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For her, the treatment center helped, but she questions all the drugs doctors put her on.

"There are natural things in life that stress you out. You get depressed. You get sad or you get angry or anxious. They are natural emotions. I feel being in foster care and being on as many anti-psychotics and anti-depressants that I've been on -- they see me for a week and they assume that's the way I've always been," Tucker said, her voice soft but her manner open. Later she explained that she's shy, but wants to make life better for other foster children if she can.

Now, as she's preparing to start at the University of Alaska Anchorage in January, Tucker wants to ease off the powerful medications.

"I need to have my mind with me. I need to be alert," she said.

Slade Martin is 20 now, but he spent 15 years in Alaska's foster care system and shuffled through, by his count, 21 different foster homes, emergency placements and treatment centers. He once was treated at a local psychiatric hospital and said every kid there is put on psychiatric drugs.

The kids want the medications cut back and think that will help them focus better on school and function better in the world.

"I don't think meds are always the best option," Martin said.

A NEED TO BE NORMAL

Counseling is traumatic to some kids -- telling your story to one stranger and then another, said Becca Shier, now 18 and a UAA student in social work who has been in foster care nearly six years.

Some, like her, will never open up. Instead of making them feel like something is wrong with them, Shier told the legislators, why not get them involved in extra curricular activities so they can be part of a regular school experience?

"So they could be normal."

Teens in foster care too often end up in treatment centers because the state has no other home for them; they are the "foster homeless," Shier said.

Martin said he spent 2 1/2 years at an Anchorage treatment center because no foster family would take him in. "Some crazy people up in there," he told legislators.

He said he was "diagnosed with everything under the rainbow" but doesn't think anything was really wrong with him. Other kids stabbed people and punched holes in the walls and were scary, he said during a break.

Tammy Sandoval, director of the state Office of Children's Services, said later that she was taken with what the youths had to say. The idea of kids spending months or years in residential treatment centers for lack of a family is troubling and she wants to look into the matter.

But the fact is, the state doesn't have enough foster homes, especially for teenagers, she said.

Sandoval said she planned to discuss the medication issues with the state's director of behavioral health.

The foster kids and alumni at the meeting are especially articulate and successful, said state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who grew up in foster care in New York state and was one of the main organizers of Friday's session. Foster kids too often struggle in school, end up homeless and are unemployed as young adults, according to studies presented at the meeting.

The kids who spoke Friday have been finding their voice through an advocacy group called Facing Foster Care in Alaska that now numbers about 140 statewide, said its president, Amanda Metivier, who at 24 helped organize the conference and is weeks away from graduating from UAA with a social work degree.

She'll be one of the first to graduate on a special tuition waiver specifically for foster kids. The foster care group wants all foster kids to be offered that benefit. Now just 10 foster kids a year get that at UAA.

At their May meeting, they also agreed to push for Medicaid health benefits to age 21, Medicaid-paid braces, and money to help older foster kids live on their own.

But state Sen. Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat at the meeting, said even sympathetic legislators may have trouble getting new programs into the state budget with the recent dramatic drop in the price of oil.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

Highlights of meeting

• OCS CASEWORKERS: Current authorization is four short of the number recommended in a 2006 study. But 25 positions are vacant.

• Trouble with turnover: One-third leave every year. There are signs that is improving, said Tammy Sandoval, OCS director. Training for new hires has doubled, from two to four weeks, and OCS is moving to allow flexible hours and telecommuting, she said.

• Churches to help: So far, six Anchorage churches -- Anchorage City Church, Abbott Loop Community Church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, Crosspoint Community Church, Faith Christian Community and ChangePoint -- have banded together to help improve foster care. They want to recruit 200 new foster families by 2012 and form a private agency that will find other ways to help.

• INFORMATION: Find out more about foster care, including how to become a foster parent, at hss.state.ak.us/ocs/FosterCare/default.htm

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  • Liberty2u wrote on 11/18/2008 03:55:32 AM:

    iwannanewlife2- Your user name said it all. I may not know what you been thru. I been taking care of my children on my own for the pass 11 years now, one was 3 the other was 8. With no help from anyone, I went out and got a JOB and did what I had to do, I put my children first. I can't send my children to college, I don't have money for that, but I'm not going to cry about it. Just because Foster Children are getting help, I think they deserve it. If my children want to go to college, their have to work for it, you know get a JOB, apply for grants and such. Sometimes you just have to learn to stand on your own two feet and not expect a handout. You said yourself "My kids are busting their butts just to get financial aid for college." So what's wrong with that? Their learning that everything isn't handed to them they have to work for it. Nothing wrong with that. You school debt are your own.

  • iwannanewlife2 wrote on 11/17/2008 01:54:35 PM:

    Liberty2u-You have no clue what I or my kids have gone through, continue to go through, or our/my circumstances. Money owed does not mean we will ever see a dime of it. The state has known where the ex was at the whole time; he has been under their so-called "supervision." Not for much longer, and still, the state won't follow its own laws. My kids know what it's like to have a parent who doesn't want them or care. He has chosen zero contact. So, because I have been responsible and cared for them, all foster kids get a free ride while me and mine get debt? Besides, I know plenty of kids in foster "care," and they have parent(s) who care and are in touch. Relatives too. If some are going to get free rides because of hardship, do it equally, or don't do it at all.

  • Liberty2u wrote on 11/16/2008 11:36:29 PM:

    iwannanewlife2 - These children do deserve a second chance. You don't know what these children went thru. These are foster children that either the parents wouldn't take care of or abused in some way. Not being wanted by your own parents has to be hard. What your going thru can't compair to what these young children went thru. You may be own $170,000.00 as long as it owed your never be broke. Track down your ex maybe your get it. I'm a divorce mother of 2, personally I could careless about the money, but of course I only get 70 per week for both of them. I would rather see the father come and visit then have the money. After all I do work for a living and make more then enough to support my children.

  • steinfeld wrote on 11/16/2008 02:39:40 PM:

    Great to see young adults who've been in foster care and treatment centers come together to help find solutions. We can't generalize all youth into one category because EACH child is unique and has their own unique needs/situation. There are different levels of residential care. The most acute care settings (hospitals, psychiatric treatment, etc.) require eligibility criteria that includes determining if that child's needs could be better met in a different environment. The mindset is always, "least restrictive level of care" is better for the youth. Some kids are extremely suicidal, dangerous to themselves or others, have serious behavioral problems, etc. For these kids it's about stabilizing and keeping them safe during that time so they can reintegrate into the community whenever possible. Sometimes family reunification is possible, other times not. That is always the preferred but some families are very destructive and unsafe places. Let's focus on solutions not blame.

  • kodiakherbgirl wrote on 11/16/2008 02:00:57 PM:

    Wild salmon DONT Do Drugs, why should wild children? good nurturing and love can really make a difference.

  • iwannanewlife2 wrote on 11/16/2008 01:42:46 PM:

    I know there's a lot of problems with foster "care" and OCS and all that. Alaska tends to prescribe too many drugs to kids in general. But it is absolutely not right for these kids to get free tuition. There are other kids who have tough lives also. My kids and I are owed over $170,000.00 in child support. The state will do nothing to enforce its own laws against the ex in my case. The kids have no dad. My kids are busting their butts just to get financial aid for college. I have $70,000 in student loans--even after turning down well over $10,000--because it helped support us while I was in school, because CSSD is a lazy outfit. My kids deserve a break as much as any foster kid. Guess that's what we get because at least one parent was responsible...

  • aksurfmom wrote on 11/16/2008 10:12:21 AM:

    It's great to see Christian churches get involved. Catholic Social Services seems to carry the largest load and do the brunt of the mercy work in this town.

  • nickolas wrote on 11/16/2008 04:02:24 AM:

    Take away the bounty on kids heads that the state receives through federal block grants when they remove children from there natural parents and adopt them out and you will see a system that will Truely look into resolving issues.and maybe it will strive a little more in correcting problems than selling them off...And start looking into what particular Docs and Agents are requesting these meds,,yes folks there is a pattern....

  • SAILOR2007 wrote on 11/16/2008 03:41:58 AM:

    It's Sarah Palins fault. Why not? She's getting blamed for everything else!

  • Doink wrote on 11/16/2008 03:20:57 AM:

    Lilysdaddy Unless you are a parent of a child with special needs you have no clue.

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