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Lawmakers blast overuse of psychiatric drugs on foster kids

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POSTED February 24, 2015 7:11 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California lawmakers on Tuesday blasted the overuse of psychiatric drugs on the state’s foster children and pledged to improve the lives of thousands of vulnerable teens after more than a decade of government inaction.

“We can’t let another decade go by without creating a system of care, a system of care that is capable of helping kids heal from the challenging experiences they have lived through or protecting them from further harm,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, in opening a joint Senate Human Services Committee and Senate Select Committee on Mental Health.

Advocates said the state’s foster children are being prescribed psychiatric drugs at three times the rate of other youth. Since 2006, the use rate of psychotropic medications has nearly doubled, McGuire said. He noted that it’s costing taxpayers millions of dollars through the state’s low-income health program Medi-Cal.

Iris Hoffman, a member of the California Youth Connection in Sonoma County, told lawmakers how she spent her childhood in juvenile homes, group homes and treatment centers while heavily medicated on the anti-psychotic drugs Abilify and Seroquel. She and other foster children were fearful of retribution if they refused drugs that made them drowsy in class, Hoffman said.

“When you’re in those situations, there’s all kinds of punishments and things you have to be fearful of if you are to refuse medications prescribed to you by a psychiatrist that only meets with you for an hour a month,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers are proposing several pieces of legislation to improve oversight after an investigation by the Bay Area News Group found that thousands of vulnerable teens in foster care are being prescribed antipsychotics that could trigger diabetes, tics, weight gain and drowsiness.

Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said Tuesday that the hearing at the Capitol is only a step in determining whether the drugs are being administered as part of a therapeutic regimen or “being used as a chemical straitjacket solely to control their behavior.”

Beall and Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, have proposed SB238, which would alert caretakers when drugs are overprescribed and warn of dangerous drug interactions.

Beall also plans to introduce two other bills — one calling for public health nurses to oversee the medical monitoring of children’s medication, and the other to establish treatment protocols and oversight in group homes.

Lawmakers on Tuesday heard from medical professionals, child welfare directors, family service advocates, foster youth and officials from California’s health and social services agencies.

The use of psychiatric drugs has increased even though the state’s foster care population has dropped. As a result of reforms that emphasize keeping children with their families whenever possible, the number of children in foster care has dropped from 103,000 in 2000 to about 55,000 in 2013.

Lawmakers say nearly a quarter of adolescents in California’s foster care youth system are prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs. According to the National Center for Youth Law with data provided by the state, 36 percent of them are taking multiple medications that carry harmful side effects.

Antipsychotics, antidepressants, ADHD drugs, anti-anxiety medications and mood stabilizers are some of the psychotropic drugs.

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