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Foster boy's suicide offers lessons

The short, tragic life and death of Gabriel Myers will not be completely in vain if the state finally adapts its treatment of mentally troubled foster children to emphasize therapy, not psychotropic drugs.

Gabriel was a 7-year-old foster child in Margate whose world, never very secure to begin with, was splintering into fragments when he hung himself April 16. Gabriel was not a perfect child. He had anger issues. He displayed inappropriate sexual behavior that may have stemmed from his own molestation earlier in Ohio.

Gabriel entered Broward County's foster-care system in June 2008 when his mother was found passed out in her drug-filled car in a parking lot. Once in foster care, Gabriel was medicated with an adult anti-depressant and received therapy. In the last few weeks of his life he was moved from two foster homes, given a new psychotropic medication, learned that his mother would be sent to jail in Ohio and came up against a foster father turning more punitive in his punishment of the boy.

Department has been candid

His death rocked the Department of Children & Families and Broward's foster-care system. DCF Secretary George Sheldon has made sure the department is candid and open about its role in Gabriel's life and death, a welcome change from prior administrations. Gabriel was one of hundreds of foster kids on psychotropic drugs. Mr. Sheldon appointed a task force to look into his death and drug use on foster children.

The group's findings show that child-welfare doctors and case workers don't always follow the rules on drugging kids in state care. In Gabriel's case, his social worker needed to get either his parent's or a judge's approval to use the psychiatric drug. That wasn't done. His therapist may have overemphasized treating the sexual behavior and overlooked his depression. Everyone dealing with the boy treated him more as a case study than as a forlorn, frightened 7-year-old who needed a parent's love and protection.

There are solutions

Other findings that must be addressed: Caregivers aren't adequately monitoring the potentially dangerous side effects of the psychotropic drugs on children; psychiatrists and pediatricians often lack medical histories for the children they treat, yet still prescribe drugs; mental healthcare for foster children is fragmented and poorly funded (this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Florida's dismal social service record); finally, and this one really needs to be heeded, DCF has failed to implement recommendations from previous reports on use of psychiatric drugs.

To continue these dreadful practices is to put the state's foster children in more peril than ever.

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