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Panel: Troubled suicidal boy, 7, needed a parent

At its first meeting, a task force looking into the suicide of Gabriel Myers asked: Who was in charge of ensuring the 7-year-old got the help he needed?


At age 7, Gabriel Myers had a psychiatrist to adjust his mental-health drugs, a therapist to help him cope with having been sexually abused, a caseworker who visited him once a month and a foster father who was becoming increasingly punitive.

What he didn't have was a parent.

During the first meeting of a Department of Children & Families task force created to fix problems that may have resulted in Gabriel's suicide last month, members wondered whether a parent was what Gabriel needed most -- someone who saw him as a little boy and not a combination of symptoms.

"There are all sorts of things that are happening around that child, but who's playing the parent role?" asked Dr. Rajiv Tandon, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida and a member of the work group.

"This is the state's child. As a parent, I would want to know what's going on. I would want to know what's happening with my child . . . I think somebody needs to think about Gabriel as a full person, but I'm not sure who was doing that."

In the last weeks of his life, Gabriel learned that his birth mother would be sent to jail in Ohio, he moved from two foster homes, he changed psychiatric medications, he switched therapists and he was punished with increasing severity, records show. He lost his action-figure toys. His foster father threatened to cut his hair.

Reacting to the claims of a foster care administrator that Gabriel's behavior at school and at home had dramatically worsened the last few weeks of his life, panelist Bill Janes, DCF's mental health chief, shot back: "Gabriel is not out of control. His environment is out of control."

"Gabriel is gone," Janes added. "We've got to stop the next one."

A sandy-haired boy with a wide, gap-toothed smile, Gabriel entered Broward County's foster care system in June 2008 when his mother, Candace Myers, was found passed out in her car in a restaurant parking lot.

Gabriel was in the car. So was an "extensive amount" of narcotics, such as Xanax, in unmarked pill containers, records show.

On April 16 -- 10 months after he entered state care -- Gabriel locked himself in the bathroom of his Margate foster home and hanged himself with a retractable shower cord.

In an unusually frank discussion of the case contained in a 66-page report, DCF identified a host of deficiencies in the way Gabriel's care was managed. They included: [assumed to be this report ]

• Several mental health workers who evaluated Gabriel said he did not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, despite "several occasions where he threatened, through word or action, to kill himself and/or others."

• Gabriel's caseworker wrote reports with "boilerplate and inconsistent information." The worker would document Gabriel's good behavior at home and in school at the same time his foster father was sending e-mails pleading with the state for help.

• The boy's caseworker failed to obtain consent from either Gabriel's mother or a judge before allowing the child to receive several mental health drugs. On several occasions, the caseworker checked a box indicating he had received parental consent, though no such permission had been sought.

• The caseworker never told Broward County Schools administrators that Gabriel was lagging behind academically and would have benefited from an educational plan tailored to help him improve -- a recommendation made early in his care.

• Florida caseworkers failed to discuss his case with their counterparts in Ohio, who had come in contact with Gabriel in 2002. Caseworkers failed to get Gabriel's Ohio social work records. They also failed to tell Ohio authorities that Gabriel claimed he had been molested by an older boy there while living with grandparents.

In his opening remarks, DCF Secretary George Sheldon told panelists to take a "broad look" at Gabriel's case for hints at what the department can do better.

In particular, though, Sheldon wants the task force to look at how DCF can better regulate the use of mental-health drugs among foster kids and better treat children who have been sexually abused.

"I am not asking you to assess blame," Sheldon said. "What I am asking is that you examine the tragic death of Gabriel Myers to see what it brings to the table. What can we learn from this case to improve our system statewide? What can we put in place so that this tragedy will not happen again?"

"We've got to get every component of the system right when dealing with these children," he added.

"Nobody can have a bad day. There's too much at stake.

2009 May 15