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5 Years After 7-year-old Gabriel Myers’s Suicide, Psychotropic Drugs Still Overprescribed in Foster Care

| February 11, 2014

Gabriel Myers was on psychotropic medications when he hung himself.

Gabriel Myers was on psychotropic medications when he hung himself.

The suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers in foster care shocked the child-welfare system in 2009. It led to a series of recommendations about Florida’s use of psychotropic medications on foster kids and how to protect already-traumatized children from sexual abuse by other abused children.

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But nearly five years after Gabriel hung himself in the shower of his foster home in Margate, the findings that followed his death are mostly unfulfilled.

Children’s advocates haven’t given up, though, and will try to move several measures forward during the 2014 legislative session.

In 2008, when he was 6 years old, Gabriel was found in a car with his mother, who was passed out with drugs at her side, authorities said. He was placed in foster care. Documentation in his case files showed that, while living in Ohio before moving to Florida, he had been sexually abused by an older child and shown pornography by an adult relative. Gabriel exhibited sexual behavior problems at school and had lost one foster placement due to his troubling behavior.

“One of the major things we learned was that the reason he was so disturbed was that he had been sexually abused himself,” said attorney Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “As a victim of sexual abuse, he was acting out. This was a significant part of his problem that went unaddressed.”

Gabriel was also taking two psychotropic medications when he died, and a Department of Children and Families investigation found that neither his parents nor a judge had approved them, nor was the medication he took reflected in his case files.

Then-DCF Secretary George Sheldon appointed two work groups in 2009 and 2010 to study and make recommendations about the use of psychotropic medications on foster children and about child-on-child sexual abuse.

One of the groups learned that in 2009, about 5 percent of all U.S. children were treated with psychotropic medications, but in Florida’s foster care system, 15.2 percent of children received at least one such medication. Of these, more than 16 percent were being medicated without the consent of a parent, guardian or judge.

Five years out, the verdict is that more progress has been made on the psychotropic medication issue than on the issue of child-on-child sexual abuse.

“I think we’re a lot better. I think we’re a lot better than most states,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, who served on the workgroup on psychotropic medications. “But I think more can be done on alternatives (to medication) and on really making sure that parents give informed consent and that courts have a true understanding of what it means.”

Talenfeld charges that while extensive recommendations were offered to address both psychotropic medications and child-on-child sex abuse, they were dropped in January 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott took office and tapped David Wilkins as the new secretary.

Findings that followed Gabriel’s death have gone mostly unfulfilled.

“This report was abandoned, and nothing was done to implement any of the recommendations,” Talenfeld said. “And they were very, very significant.”

In July, when Esther Jacobo became DCF’s interim secretary, Florida’s Children First contacted her and, Talenfeld said, began drafting legislation addressing key recommendations, such as mandatory reporting to the abuse hotline of the sexual abuse of children in state care and a tracking, placement and quality assurance system.

The group is also pushing to eliminate the age distinction for children who act out sexually in the foster care system. Currently, those 13 and over are reported to the sheriff’s office as sex offenders. Talenfeld —- who also hopes lawmakers will pass a claims bill for a client of his who was sexually abused by a foster child — says all child victims should be treated for the abuse they’ve endured, even if the symptoms involve acting out.

Another key recommendation was that the Legislature should provide funding to ensure that each child in the care of the state is assigned a guardian ad litem — an advocate for abused and neglected children in the court system.

“Nothing will get better unless the Legislature fully funds guardians ad litem for every trial,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman. “We are still far behind in that most important recommendation.”

By the terms of both state and federal law, the program should be fully funded, said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of Florida Guardian ad Litem. Currently, there are 29,285 children under court supervision statewide, of whom 76 percent have a guardian ad litem.

This year, Scott recommended an increase that would extend coverage to all children in out-of-home care and 77 percent of those under court supervision. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, in a work plan for the session, said they hoped to fully fund the program over the next several years.

Abramowitz said the guardian ad litem program will need about $6.1 million in Fiscal Year 2014-15 and additional funds in the following three years to achieve 100 percent representation of all dependent children.

He also said the program “has made psychotropic medication a priority. Our standards require our program to prioritize children on psychotropic medication.”

As to how DCF is handling the psychotropic medication issue five years after Gabriel’s death, Rosenberg said “the state put a pretty good system in place, as far as creating a rule to be followed and attempting to ascertain whether at least a legal authority is there.”

But as a foster parent, she said, she’s also seen the other end of the process.

“I think we still kind of default to ‘If a doctor prescribed it, then it must be what the kid needs’ — and not enough questions about what information was provided, what did the doctor look at and what else has been tried? …I’m not convinced that everyone on the front line has an in-depth understanding to the extent that they need in order to get good decisions made for each child,” Rosenberg said

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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17 Responses for “5 Years After 7-year-old Gabriel Myers’s Suicide, Psychotropic Drugs Still Overprescribed in Foster Care”

  1. Steve Wolfe says:

    This is haunting. There is nothing more important than providing the most compassionate care in the safest environment possible for every rescued child victimized by sub-humans. A possibly equal nightmare is the effect of mistakes by state employees working in under-funded conditions following dated guidelines who perceive the children as “cases,” rather than precious little people (even though they may do so to preserve their own sanity in the field). Once the court places the children, they become sealed into an alien world, possibly as toxic to their little souls as the environment they were rescued from.

    I want legislators to put down every other issue until this is addressed. They can spend my money on this one. I hope they all feel the weight of this.

    “It were better for him if the millstone of a donkey were hung on his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he would subvert one of these little ones.”

  2. A.S.F. says:

    Children and the elderly are much more likely than any other group to have “paradoxical” reactions to Psychotropic medications (or any other medication, for that matter, including over the counter drugs.) Drugs that calm aggression can actually make them more aggressive and those that combat depression can make them suicidal. Still, as sad as this story is, I hope a thorough inquiry was made into this suicide. It’s pretty difficult for a seven year old to commit suicide by hanging.

  3. Raul Troche says:

    Psychotropic drugs work on the brain and often can cause hallucinations and severe depression and mood changes. The big question is why is it that statewide one in every six or seven of these young children are given one or more of these powerful drugs and often without the approval of a parent, guardian, or the courts? WTF is wrong with these people?
    Often times these places are not good homes for these poor little children. Nancy Clements and I used to go once a week to a large children’s shelter. I felt very sorrowful for these little ones and we would come once a week with two small dogs and tried to cheer them up and to show our loving care. Eventually as these children began to open up we found out that at least one of them (the shy one) had been being sexually abused by one of the care givers. After reporting this the individual was fired.
    Fired that’s all! I am happy to hear that they are trying to give them the guardian.
    I feel much compassion for these children who are run through “the system”. Often times it’s like having the fox guarding the hen house. Hopefully the legislators can help.
    What these children need is loving hugs not psychotropic drugs.

    • orphan says:

      I wish I could give YOU a loving hug, Raul.
      Your post shows that you care enough to get involved with things that are problematic and, simply put, I can’t. (Too shy around groups of people)
      The little people whose histories that I am familiar with all share a communal uncertainty: The monies and other benefits provided by our Socialist government to the custodians (whether parental OR foster) go MOSTLY to the upkeep of the people in charge of the little ones, and not ‘to’ the little ones. It’s so sad!
      The way to fix this disaster is to call for a COMPLETE overhaul of every state agency responsible for the protection of children! Screen the foster parents thoroughly and then follow through with an open mind.
      Believe me, this little rant of mine has more to do with the funds available to the general public in our country than it has to do with foster parents. The system of, geez, “Give them all that they ask for” has at some point got to come to a halt.
      Stop funding the people who are actually causing the problems!

  4. Mario says:

    This is just sickening to me.

    Taking a child out of one bad environment and forcing them into another, is certainly not going to help that child at all. We must stop the taking of children from their natural parents and instead, assist the individuals with becoming responsible parents.

    Putting these children on mind altering medications is not the answer either. We must identify the root cause of their problems and address them, so that they can become responsible adults.

    Once again, Rick Scott’s name is assigned to something that ends up being a detriment to our children. You really want to re-elect this guy?!!

    5 years later and nothing substantial has been done to protect our young ones!

    Giving psychotropic medications to a 7 year old … are you kidding me?!!!

    It’s just sickening that we treat our animals better than our children.

    And then to treat a 13 year old like an adult and call the Sheriffs office to handle their problem! This is supposed to help the child?!

    How does a 7 year old child, who is known to be troubled, who is on psychotropic medications, be allowed enough time alone to hang themselves?

    The is so disgusting. I would never call DCF for anything unless it was an absolute dire situation that could not be handled by friends, family, or the community. The Humane Society takes better care of our animals than DCF does for our children.

    • Concerned says:

      In response to Mario: If you really want to help these kids, become a foster parent. You cannot contstanly watch them unless you plan on staying up all night, every night and can you imagine how that poor kid would feel if you were in the room when he was bathing after everything he has been through? Mabey if DCF was able to get involved earlier, he would not have had to suffer. Also, many times the Judge awards these poor kids back to the family and the abuse continues. DCF does NOT take children away from their families unless the child is in danger. PLEASE understand that unless you have been raped as a child, you will never know how these children feel. Medication can help some children cope with the trauma. As for the 13 year old who raped a 5 year old- YES law enforcement SHOULD get involved. Time and time again young children become the victims of rape from teenagaers because nothing was done. My heart goes out to the victims.

  5. Genie says:

    This is heartbreaking. I’m not sure we can ever do enough to help these kids. Maybe it’s time to spend more time talking about this in the schools, about molestation, abuse and where to seek help.

    It may not have helped this little one, but if it helps one, that’s a start. Children don’t know what normal sexual behavior is anymore. The bar may have been lowered too far.

  6. Reaganomicon says:

    One other thing to be concerned about other than the usage rate of these drugs is the fact that many of the ones that are prescribed for children haven’t been evaluated regarding their long-term effects on developing brains. It’s been demonstrated in a number of journals that cortisol release over an extended period during brain development (cortisol is released during high-stress situations) will cause an adult brain to stay in fight-or-flight mode even when removed from that situation, which causes major judgement impairment and is probably at the root of a lot of “abusive family = kids become abusive” situations, as well as ones where the kids as adults have major judgement impairment. These drugs alter brain chemistry, and might have similar effects on the developing brain, and yet doctors see no problems prescribing them.

  7. Skeptic says:

    It’s common knowledge that many if not most of these drugs given to children are prescribed “off label” and in fact have never been clinically tested on adolescents or small children. Big Pharma doesn’t care about the damage their chemicals cause, or the side effects. It’s all very mind numbing. (Pardon the pun)

  8. A.S.F. says:

    I think every one of these commenters have made good points. Not a lot of research is done, by the pharmaceutical companies, regarding the effects of most drugs on children or the elderly, before drugs are approved for the market. Yet, they are used out of desperation. I’ve seen parents bring very young children in to the ER after these children have hurt themselves, their siblings, other children or even the parents themselves. I’ve seen them bring in children after the children have destroyed nearly every physical object in the home, breaking down doors, punching and kicking holes in walls and shattering glass windows and mirrors by hitting them with their fists or even throwing their bodies through them. Drugs are often given in acute situations to prevent physical harm. Where children are concerned, there is often a diagnosis “du jour” that is given, for convenience and for insurance purposes. In the old days, such children were labeled as being “hyperactive” or having “Conduct Disorders.” Now you see a lot of kids being labeled with “Bipolar Disorder” and “ADHD.” For awhile, you saw a lot of kids being labeled as having “Asperger’s Syndrome.” Too many parents bring their children in to treatment with the demand that they be “fixed.” These parents are often not receptive to any probing into “family secrets” and, the minute you try to investigate what really might be going in the home or even at school, they pull out the child out of treatment., looking for a doctor who will medicate their child into better compliance. They often don’t want to bother with treatment plans or behavioral modification therapies that involve schedules and reward systems. They often feel too stressed out to bother, want a quick fix or may even be afraid that something may be revealed that they don’t want “the authorities” to know about. Sometimes it has to do with sexual abuse, drugs and/or alcohol, or the mental illness of another family member. Sometimes a child may be acting out the marital problems of his parents and the parents are “scapegoating” one or more children in the home to take the “heat” off themselves as being the ones with the deeper problems. Children in Foster Care often have Attachment Disorders (which they come by quite legitimately) that make them prone to behavioral issues, Anxiety, Depression and difficulties relating to others. Add ongoing sexual, physical and emotional abuse into the mix and it’s the “perfect storm.” I believe that we can do better and we must better. If we don’t, we all will pay, one way or another. Witnessing the pain of these children is nearly unbearable.

  9. Steve Wolfe says:

    I offer a challenge to all the commenters here to act on behalf of these children. I am open to suggestions, but at the minimum, why don’t we all write to our state reps, and cc: our Federal guys, so the state knows the heavies are looking at their response. We can share a letter and all sign it, privately or together. I would be open to travelling to Tallahassee with all of you to meet with our reps. I am also open to more information on this issue, and I ask A.S.F. to suggest further reading. A.S.F., for one, can provide some credibility to any efforts. I don’t want to just “tsk, tsk,” about this and then move on.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I agree with you, Steve Wolfe. You see, we CAN agree on some things (probably many more than you might realize.) This is certainly a worthy cause!

    • Steve Wolfe says:

      A.S.F., I offer you, specifically, another challenge: let’s direct all of our comments at the issue described in the articles, rather than each other’s qualifications to comment on the issue. I think the qualifications are simply 1) our freedom of speech, and 2) Pierre’s acceptance. Let’s refrain from personal attacks so we can have a productive conversation in civil tones (at least you and I). I can read between the lines to judge how well versed you are on a given issue, and I may choose to praise your commentary, but I won’t try to degrade you personally in any way if I don’t agree with your position, and you will hopefully show the same respect. Here’s my hand. Shake on it?

      I actually want to learn from people with expertise, if for no other reason than to have a more informed perspective when I have future opportunities to discuss the issue. I don’t want to disqualify something because the source happens to have a political perspective that I disagree with. I think that would be the kind of closed-mindedness that everyone decries. When I do disagree, I would rather spend time on cogent arguments on the substance than pointless and time-wasting attacks on character that distract from the educational moments. We have well established by now that we won’t agree on major political views. Enough said. The serious matters are bigger than the scope of who we will vote for. What say you?

      And where is your final reply to the long PTSD string we had? I’m ready to exhale now. By the way, my most final comment in that string is still awaiting moderation (the comment staff is pretty busy keeping up with newer posts). I think that, no matter what rung of the social ladder we are on, and no matter what political stripes we wear, I can still say, “love ya,” because that’s just my heart. (It’s also fundamental to jazz.)

  11. Mary Cannady says:

    Has anyone considered being a Big Brother or Sister? I worked for this wonderful agency before retirement. Also there is Child advocates. Not an easy volunteer position but SO important.

  12. A.S.F. says:

    CASA also does a wonderful job!

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