Tallahassee, FL – Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, is horrified by accounts of children in state custody who died on psychotropic drugs that hadn't been vetted in accordance with the law. As Margie Menzel reports, the measure still hasn't been heard in the House - but Storms isn't ready to concede.
It's one year since the death of seven-year-old Gabriel Myers, who hanged himself while in foster care and on two black-box psychotropic drugs. A task force investigating his death found that a 2005 law requiring parental consent or a court order had been ignored in Gabriel's case - and was frequently ignored within Florida's child welfare system. "Psychotherapeutic medications are often being used to help parents, teachers and other child workers quiet and manage, rather than treat, children," the task force report noted. Sen. Storms has called the drugs "chemical strait-jackets" and said low-income and minority youngsters are more likely to be medicated.
"They have long-term consequences for these children, even if that baby does not die as a result of being on that medication," said Storms. "These are very big, important decision life decisions that we're making for these children, and we have a moral obligation and an ethical obligation to make sure we're doing everything possible to protect these children. They don't have anybody."
But while Storms' bill to require more safeguards for foster kids on psychotropic meds - including a Guardian ad Litem and a treatment plan - has passed two of its three Senate committees, the House companion by Rep. Faye Culp hasn't been heard at all. Storms said the measure is her top legislative priority.
"If they're not going to pay attention by the traditional means of filing the bills and doing the things that they're supposed to be doing," said Storms, "then I'm going to slap it on every single bill that I can to send over there to say, you know, 'Up or down.'"
The bill is backed by the Department of Children and Families, and DCF Secretary George Sheldon, who's been talking with House leaders, said it has an uphill climb.
"If nothing passes, we're going to aggressively pursue regulations inside the agency," he said. "There's a lot already on the books that allows us to do many of the things that we need. I'd rather have statute than not, but we'll handle it one way or the other."
But some children's advocates say the law already on the books would do the job if enforced. Andrea Moore, a Broward County attorney who played a key role in getting that law passed, says the definitions have been watered down over time.
"What we had found is that some doctors were prescribing psychotropic medication for things like bed-wetting when other medication had long been approved and was not as dangerous," Moore said. "And people were starting to use the excuse of bed-wetting to get around the consent needed in the statute."
Moore also said an amendment in Storms' bill to allow group homes to medicate children without consent for three days makes the bill weaker than the law. Storms disagreed, but said the amendment was a fallback position to get the bill passed.
"I mean, here's the population we're talking about," Storms said. "We're not talking about a child who just came into foster care. We're talking about self-injury children, children who are using objects to gouge their skin out and their eyes. We know that there are children who are so traumatized that they bang their head repeatedly, up against the wall, very forcefully until their skull cracks."
Sheldon, too, has reservations about the amendment.
"I think that could be done without the change she's seeking," he said. "If the psychiatrist or the prescribing physician determines that it's an emergency, he can provide the psychotropic medications until such time as they can get a court hearing. I think that's sufficient."
In any case, Sheldon said, the loss of Gabriel Myers was not in vain. But the spotlight his shocking death shone on the child welfare system has dimmed, said Andrea Moore.
"When the media was paying a lot of attention, everybody in the child welfare system paid attention, and the children got better care," Moore said. "With the media spotlight turned off, things appear to me to be going back to the old way of doing things."
Lawmakers are still considering a DCF budget request to fund a statewide medical director for children in foster care and on psychotropic drugs.