“Children, particularly in group homes, must be allowed to refuse medications without being punished.” — Tisha Ortiz, former foster youth
San Jose Mercury News
January 31, 2015
By Karen de Sá
California lawmakers will consider a major overhaul this year of how the state cares for thousands of traumatized foster children, a sweeping effort to curb the excessive use of psychiatric drugs in foster care.
Legislation to boost caregiver training, strengthen court oversight of prescriptions and give foster youth the right to alternative treatments is in the works in the Senate to address problems revealed in this newspaper’s yearlong investigation “Drugging Our Kids.”
After years of growing concern — but no action — state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said he is “optimistic that oversight will result in overdue reform.”
Psychotropic drug use in foster care is “one of the top issues on the child welfare agenda this session,” said Susanna Kniffen, policy director at the nonprofit Children Now advocacy group.
With a half dozen legislators exploring bills, de León’s staff has been working behind the scenes, attending meetings of a statewide reform group and meeting with advocates and lawmakers considering bills.
“When the government takes the extraordinary step of removing a child from their families because of abuse or neglect, it assumes the tremendous responsibility of ensuring they are cared for and not further abused or neglected by the system,” de León said in an email.
This newspaper’s “series on the overprescribing of psychotropic medications has shed a spotlight on a deeply troubling aspect of the system,” de León said. “The Senate will be investigating the plight of the adolescents highlighted in these articles, as well as foster children generally.”
The series revealed how many in the foster care system have come to rely on a drug-first approach to managing the behavior of thousands of troubled children. While the drugs do little to help abused and neglected youth cope with their trauma, they often lead to debilitating side effects, such as obesity, diabetes and tremors.
But there are signs that legislative reform effort will not go unchallenged. Statewide associations representing foster care residential group homes and medical professionals are speaking out against a new state policy — introduced in October, weeks after the newspaper’s series began — that makes it more difficult for doctors to prescribe antipsychotics to children on public benefits, including foster youth. Some of that sentiment may surface in legislation to oppose the new rule.
The final deadline to submit bills is not until late February, but preliminary language now being drafted would ensure kids, caregivers, attorneys and judges are informed about medications and their side effects. The bills would also:
- Grant kids the right to alternative treatments that do not involve powerful drugs, and a second medical opinion when potentially dangerous combinations of drugs or high dosages are prescribed.
- Train caregivers to understand medications’ risks and benefits, and better handle children who display difficult behaviors.
- Ensure children on medications receive baseline monitoring so that side effects can be caught early and interrupted.
- Identify group homes where children are being overmedicated.
- Empower public health nurses to ensure psych meds are used appropriately.
Youth advocates and former foster children are cheering the flurry of legislative action, said Tisha Ortiz, a former foster youth from Hayward who serves on a statewide panel examining the use of psychotropics.
“I am extremely happy now that lawmakers are trying to push this thing forward,” said Ortiz, 22, who suffered through multiple moves and spent her adolescence under heavy doses of medications.
Ortiz said children, particularly in group homes, must be allowed to refuse medications without being punished like she was, and she encouraged lawmakers considering bills to focus on allowing youth “to be more active in their treatment plans, rather than leaving them on the sidelines while everyone else controls them.”
Lawmakers, including state Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, have each submitted early language to the Legislative Counsel’s office, their staff members confirmed. Other bills addressing prescribing in group homes are also in the early stages.