Not the right medicine: psychotropic drugs and the overmedication of California’s foster children

By Oscar Duenas Source: KQED

Recently, a barrage of articles have come out claiming that children within the California foster care system are frequently being prescribed psychotropic drugs, which are designed to alter mood, emotions and behavior.  Psychotropic drugs are often prescribed to treat mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. These drugs include side effects such as onset obesity, diabetes and lethargy, and long term effects can include brain shrinkage and risk of suicide. Many of these drugs have gone untested and are unsafe for children.

According to an in depth investigation by Mercury News, about 25 percent of teenagers in foster care are prescribed psychotropic drugs to subdue their behavior, not mental illnesses. The rate of prescriptions has risen to alarming rates in the last ten years, despite a decreasing population in the foster care system.

Psychotropic drugs benefit children with diagnosed psychoses, but only about one to two percent of children in the California foster care system suffer from such illness. Rather than mental illness, the report found an increased usage of psychotropic drugs to control children’s behavior. It also found that children were prescribed multiple psychotropic drugs at the same time, and that several hundred children under the age of five were prescribed psychotropic drugs, despite multiple health reports indicating that these drugs are not safe for young children.

Moreover, as a behavior changing drug, these drugs have the potential to effect a child’s schoolwork and social life. In an article for the Greenville reporter, a member of the California Youth Connection in Sonoma recalled being drowsy while in class as a child after taking prescribed psychotropic drugs Abilify and Seroquel.

Aside from health risks, prescribing psychotropic drugs has also been costly for the state, overall California spends more on these drugs for foster kids than any other drugs or medication. Medi-Cal, who covers the medical expenses for California’s foster programs, covered over $226 million worth of psychotropic drugs for the State of California.

The legislature has failed California’s foster children. The Senate Human Services Committee has evaluated dozens of bills in the past decade that would have required all psychotropic prescriptions to be reviewed by the juvenile court. However, all of these bills have been voted down on the Senate or Assembly floor. However, regardless of past failures, new legislation is still being introduced to solve this problem. The Senate Human Services Committee will review four bills this year, including Senate Bill 253 Dependent children: psychotropic medications. This bill, introduced by Senator Bill Monning, will require “clear and convincing evidence of specified matters” and a second independent medical opinion before granting psychotropic drug prescription. SB 253 faces opposition that argues that Senator Monning’s bill will only delay the prescription for children that depend on the medication.

California needs to increase regulations over drug prescription on foster youth. Evidence shows that medicating children at a young age can cause long term damage, especially if the prescription does not treat any medical issues.

Members of the legislature have met with health experts, foster youth, and family services that have advocated to discuss these issues. Many of the prescriptions intended use were to control children’s behavior, not treat mental illness. But the side effects of these behavior-changing drugs effect children’s school progress and social life.

Children in foster care need a guardian that can teach them the difference right and wrong, and how to behave, not a prescription drug band aid to fix behavioral issues. Prescribing drugs that are meant to treat mental health illness is the not proper way to raise children, especially children who have suffered a large deal of emotional trauma, as foster children often have. California needs to act to decrease the amount of drugs being prescribed to its foster children and look to other options to solve problems in the foster system.

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