TALLAHASSEE — Alarmed lawmakers said Wednesday they plan to push through legislation next year to try to prevent overuse of mind-altering drugs by foster children after the apparent suicide of a 7-year-old boy last April.
Members of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee from both parties said the state needed to toughen laws and rules for prescribing psychiatric drugs to children in the wake of the hanging death of Gabriel Myers and an ongoing examination by a Department of Children and Families task force.
Jim Sewell, a former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and chair of the group, presented some of the task force’s findings to the committee at a meeting Wednesday.
But even as they pledged action, committee members and officials with DCF acknowledged that the state has tried before to get handle on the number of children taking psychiatric drugs and how the state goes about getting approval for those children to use the medications.
“It’s the same problem over and over and over again,” said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.
Storms said legislators would need to follow up on any laws it passes to ensure that the initiative would be more successful than past changes to the law.
It’s not entirely clear what measures might be included in the bill planned by the committee. Lawmakers will wait to hear recommendations expected to be released by Sewell’s task force in November.
One problem the legislation could address is the working group’s discovery that hundreds of foster children were taking psychiatric drugs, even though the department lacked proof that a parent or judge had approved the medications.
State officials have since whittled down that list, largely by gaining judicial approval for the drugs. Lawmakers and officials with the state agency seemed to agree that parental consent could be problematic because parents could feel compelled to accept the medicines so that the state will return their children.
DCF Secretary George Sheldon, who took over the agency late last year, said the death of Gabriel showed glaring weaknesses in the system.
“This little boy was flooded with services,” he said, “but nobody was acting as the child’s parent.”
Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said that’s one problem lawmakers should look to fix.
“Some place along the line, somebody’s got to be advocating for the children’s medical care,” he said.
Some lawmakers were also interested in tracking any agreements or incentives physicians might get from pharmaceutical companies for prescribing certain drugs. Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, compared it to schools that get incentives from soda or junk-food makers for allowing vending machines in schools.
“If it’s not the schools making a profit off it, is it the doctors making a profit off it?” he asked.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, also said the state should make sure foster parents know their responsibilities when caring for children in state care.
“Let’s be brutally honest: Foster-care parents get paid to do this,” she said. “I think the target audience here should be foster parents, too.”
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