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Foster kids medicated 'for mental health'


Foster kids medicated 'for mental health'

November 04, 2008

Caroline Overington

FOSTER children are being medicated with psychotropic drugs at 10 times the rate of other children because as many as half have mental health problems, according to NSW Community Services Minister Linda Burney.

In a statement to The Australian yesterday, Ms Burney said "no one likes to see children on medication" but foster children generally had poor mental health and social competence compared with their peers and were therefore medicated.

She said a recent study of NSW foster children aged four to nine had found that half had mental health issues, such as attachment or "contact" problems, or attention deficit disorders.

The Australian reported yesterday that one in four foster children in NSW is taking psychotropic drugs, including stimulants and anti-depressants. In residential homes, where children live in small groups supervised by social workers, the rate of drug use is 50 per cent.

Those figures were taken from the Children's Guardian annual report, tabled in the NSW parliament on Friday.

The report said: "Almost a quarter of the (578) audited case files showed that psychotropic medication was currently prescribed."

The report also said that "children aged under 12 years in residential care ... were significantly more likely to have psychotropic medication prescribed (approximately 50 per cent)."

Children's Guardian Kerryn Boland said the figure from the sample could not fairly be extrapolated across the entire population of foster children because it was a particular sample. The sample represented the only data available for the 2007-08 year, but Ms Boland said the rate across the entire population in 2006-07 was "closer to one in seven".

The minister said children in care had suffered emotional trauma and some had been exposed to parental drug abuse and conflict and family violence.

But Ms Burney said the NSW Department of Community Services did not encourage the use of psychotropic medication "unless this is the judgment of a medical professional".

Ms Burney said $10,000 per child per year was also spent on other "supports and therapies".

Phil Mitchell, who conducted a review of the use of stimulants in children for the NSW Government, said the rate was "worryingly high".

Professor Mitchell puts the rate of stimulant use in the general population of children -- which excludes other drugs, such as anti-depressants -- at about 1.5 per cent.

"It does sound excessive, and it would suggest a lack of resources," Professor Mitchell said.

"In the foster care community, a number of these kids are going to suffer from psychological difficulties, so some use of medications is not inappropriate or wrong, but we prefer to use only when necessary.

"The critical issue is: how much non-drug therapy is available?"

Despite the large proportion of children on medication, counsel assisting the Wood inquiry into child welfare, Gail Furness, said the issue would not be investigated by James Wood QC.

Ms Furness said the issue had not been raised with the inquiry, and there had been no submissions about it.

2008 Nov 4