TAMPA, Florida -- Mind-altering drugs for kids as young three years old? It's a national scandal that has hit home in Florida.
Twelve percent of children in Florida who have been removed from their homes and are in state foster care are prescribed psychotropic drugs. According to a government accountability report, kids in foster care in Florida are about three times more likely to receive the drugs.
The side effects from these drugs can be suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, nightmares, and even death.
"We're playing with fire," says Florida State Senator Ronda Storms, a Republican from Brandon. Storms has a bill (SB 1808) working its way through the state legislature. Her proposed legislation would make it so compelling state interest must be shown before a child in the Department of Children and Families foster care system is medicated.
"We have the state making decisions for children without proper scrutiny," says the senator.
Storms is leading the charge to reign in the use of drugs for kids in the welfare system after 7-year-old Gabriel Myers hanged himself in the shower of his foster parents' home. A state investigation concluded the use of psychotropic drugs was a contributing factor.
"Suicide is one of the black box side affects they were giving for adults. It's no surprise this little baby had that reaction to those drugs," says Storms.
Francesca Moore has been trying to find answers for more than 10 years on why they put her child on psychotropic drugs to begin with. Her premature daughter was less than two pounds when she was born and wasn't gaining weight at a normal rate.
The state removed the little girl for "failure to thrive" and gave her adult psychotropic drugs that the guidelines state shouldn't be given to any child under 12 years old.
"Why would you give my baby a medication? This is experimenting on children. This is killing our children and our children are in danger for what? Money, greed, power, control," says Moore.
"Very often these children are given drugs that were not intended or tested for children. It's called 'off label use,'" says University of Tampa Psychology Professor Joseph Sclafani.
Sclafani maintains the drugs are prescribed too often. In 2008, Medicaid paid more than $64 million for the drugs prescribed for children. Sclafani worries about more than the immediate side effects.
"The problem is sometimes they are overprescribed and we don't know when to stop and we don't know what the long-term effects are going to be down the road, because the child's brain is still developing," he says.
The DCF tells the 10 News Investigators since Gabriel Myers' death, the agency has made several changes to try to ensure that only children who need psychotropic drugs get them.
"No one wants to see a foster child on drugs they don't need to be on. No case management agency is perfect. Sometimes children get hurt when they're in foster care, sometimes children die," says DCF spokesperson Erin Gillespie.
DCF policy is extremely clear that before any child in foster care can be given a psychotropic drug, two doctors have to sign off on it. Also, a biological parent -- not the foster parent -- must be notified or a judge has to sign a court order.
But the 10 News Investigators have discovered the state doesn't follow its own rules.
"They wouldn't give me any information," says Karen Shaw, whose two sons were removed after she and her former husband were involved in a domestic violence dispute. The boys were prescribed the drugs without her knowledge, without a court order, and according to court documents, the caseworker lied and said Shaw's parental rights were terminated when they were not.
"I was completely baffled as to how they managed to do that without having a court hearing and I asked the judge, 'Why wasn't there a court hearing for this?' Now, I know why. Because [the caseworker] had signed a form getting around saying, 'Your parent rights were terminated,' which was a bald-faced lie," says Shaw.
Other parents tell the same story. Francesca Moore's case is a lie the state has been living for 10 years. "They are supposed to tell the parent or the court when they are in foster care if they are going to give them any kind of psychotropic drugs. I had no knowledge and they never told me or the court," she says.
Senator Storms maintains these children need more protection, even though DCF says they don't. "Because they are 'doing it so well,' that's what they said, which is why we have children who have died. We have children in the system that were given so much psychotropic drugs that their little gums were bleeding when they went to school every day. They couldn't keep their heads up in class."
On a national scale, every week one child goes into a coma, four children die of side effects, and one child commits suicide because these drugs intended to help often don't.
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