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Posted on Thu, May. 05, 2005
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 •  The law will . . .


New law curbs drugging of kids

A bill designed to ease the use of 'chemical restraints' on unruly foster children was approved by the Florida Legislature.

Law curbs drugging of foster kids

In a move to curb the use of powerful mind-altering drugs among children in state care, state lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that will restrict the state's ability to medicate foster children without the consent of parents or a juvenile judge.

The bill, sponsored by Broward County Democrats Walter G. ''Skip'' Campbell in the Senate and Tim Ryan in the House will require the Department of Children & Families to seek the consent of a child's birth parents before administering the drugs. Without such consent, DCF will have to get approval from a judge.

Passed by the House Wednesday and the Senate last week, the legislation was prompted by a series of stories in The Herald, beginning in 2001, that reported as many as one in four foster children were being given psychiatric drugs, sometimes large ''cocktails'' of such medications.

Advocates claim the drugs -- antipsychotics, antidepressants such as Prozac, mood stabilizers such as lithium and hyperactivity drugs such as Ritalin -- often are used as ''chemical restraints'' on children who are difficult to manage but not mentally ill. And in recent months, federal regulators have warned that some types of anti-depressants -- commonly used among foster kids -- are linked to an increased risk of suicidal thinking among children.


'I hope this legislation will finally teach DCF when to just say `No' to drugs,'' said Richard Wexler, head of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, and a persistent critic of DCF's foster-care efforts.

An analysis of Ryan and Campbell's bill by Senate staffers described a ''surprising finding'' -- ''Twenty-five percent of the children living in a foster care setting were being treated with psychiatric medications, a rate five times higher than that for the general population'' of children receiving Medicaid, an insurance program for the needy.

In 2003, the Statewide Advocacy Council reported that more than half of the foster children whose records the group reviewed were taking some kind of psychiatric drug. Infants and toddlers were among those being administered the drugs, most of which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not studied on children to determine their safety or effectiveness.

DCF challenged the report, saying the group focused its attention on children likely to require medication.

The furor over psychiatric drugs began in February 2001, when Coral Springs attorney Andrea Moore told child welfare officials that two of her clients had developed severe side effects as a result of taking an anti-psychotic drug, Risperdal. One girl began lactating, though she wasn't pregnant.

When Moore questioned the use of the drugs on children who were not diagnosed as psychotic, 'doctors responded by changing the diagnosis to include either a psychosis or modified an existing diagnosis to include psychotic features, thereby `justifying' administration of the drug,'' Moore wrote in a February 2001 letter.

Three months later, The Herald reported that a consultant hired by DCF warned that ''the widespread use of psychotropic medications is a systemwide issue'' in the state's child welfare program. The consultant,

''Finally: protections for children in foster care from the practice of using psychotropic medication as chemical restraints,'' Moore said Wednesday.

Ryan, of Dania Beach, said the bill's protections were not quite as strong as he had hoped, but the measure will give judges new powers for monitoring treatment.

''Children do not have as many lobbyists as business interests have in Tallahassee,'' Ryan said.


Lawmakers tacked on an amendment, which began as a bill by Rep. Gustavo ''Gus'' Barreiro, a Miami Republican, and Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican, that will prevent Florida public school administrators from expelling students whose parents refuse to give them psychiatric drugs.

''This bill is about safeguards,'' said Campbell, of Tamarac. ``The children in DCF's care deserve the kind of reasoned, informed process that this bill will require whenever someone decides that it's a good idea to put a child on a psychotropic medication.''

''This bill isn't perfect, but it takes a significant step in that direction by providing greater protections for children; by strengthening due process rights for parents; and by giving guidance to the department, the physicians and the courts that doesn't exist now,'' Campbell said.

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