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After 7-year-old's suicide, officials order look at drug use of other Florida foster children


Jon Burstein | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

7:06 PM EDT, April 29, 2009

MARGATE - In the aftermath of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers' suicide, state child welfare officials will review the case files of every foster child in Florida to see how many are on mind-altering drugs.

The head of the Department of Children & Families also took the rare step Wednesday of appointing a panel to examine the circumstances surrounding Gabriel's death. The child hanged himself April 16 with a shower hose in the bathroom of his Margate foster home.

"It is difficult for any of us to comprehend how a child so young could have deliberately and consciously made the decision to end his life," DCF Secretary George Sheldon said. "But in order to help prevent this type of tragedy from happening again, it is critical we review all available information to determine the factors that led to Gabriel's death."

Four weeks before his suicide, Gabriel was prescribed Symbyax, which is a combination of the generic forms of the anti-depressant Prozac and the anti-psychosis drug Zyprexa. He already had been taking Vyvanse, a drug to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Sheldon has asked his agency to examine how many of the more than 20,000 foster children in Florida are taking psychotropic drugs. A DCF study in 2005 concluded that one in every four foster children was on a mood-altering drug.

Child advocates in the state have long criticized what they have described as the rampant use of psychotropic drugs on foster children.

"One of our concerns is that they use the medications as 'chemical restraint' and not as a medication to treat a disease or condition," said Andrea Moore, executive director of Florida's Children First.

Child welfare records released last week indicate Gabriel started taking Symbyax even though there apparently was no court order in place. Under Florida law, parental consent or a judge's order is needed before a foster child can be administered a psychotropic drug.

"We need to develop a refined protocol for the use of these types of drugs in our children," Sheldon said. "I want to ensure that prescription drugs of this nature are used appropriately, always under medical and judicial supervision and with consultation with DCF staff."

To delve into Gabriel's death, Sheldon appointed a five-member panel to be led by Jim Sewell, a former assistant commissioner with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Jon Myers, Gabriel's uncle, said he hopes that something good will come out of DCF's actions.

"We realize (child welfare officials) have a tough job and the idea is that they learn from this and pass some laws which are in the best interest of the children," Myers said.

Jon Burstein can be reached at jburstein@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4491

2009 Apr 29