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Report focuses on Fla. foster kids' prescriptions



Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Proper authorization wasn't obtained for 16 percent of the Florida foster children who have taken antidepressants and other prescribed psychotropic drugs, according to a study ordered after one of those youngsters apparently committed suicide.

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon announced the findings at a news conference Thursday.

A photo of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers was projected onto a screen behind Sheldon, who said there was no excuse for failing to comply with a law that requires parental consent or a court order for such prescriptions.

The drugs affect the central nervous system and can change behavior or perception. They are prescribed for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions. Some are used to alleviate pain.

Gabriel was found hanging from a shower cord in the bathroom of his foster parents' Margate home April 16.

"Anyone who's heard of Gabriel's story, I know, is in disbelief and parents everywhere are wondering themselves how could this have happened," Sheldon said. "Normally a 7-year-old boy is learning to read and tie his shoes, not contemplating death."

Sheldon has appointed a task force headed by Jim Sewell, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement assistant commissioner, to determine if the drugs he was taking or alleged sexual abuse were factors in his death. Records show he had allegedly been molested by an older boy in Ohio, where he had lived until last June.

The panel also is looking into whether psychotropic drugs are being prescribed for the wrong reasons. Critics say they are misused as a chemical restraint for unruly children.

Sheldon said he expects to receive the panel's finding within two months.

Officials early on realized the department's database failed to show Gabriel had been taking the drugs and they had been prescribed without proper authorization, Sheldon said.

Sheldon then ordered a check of all foster children's records. The resulting report shows parental consent or court orders had not been obtained for 433, or 16 percent of 2,669 foster children receiving such drugs.

"That is unacceptable," Sheldon said.

The report also indicates the 2,699 children taking psychotropic drugs comprise 13 percent of all Florida children in out-of-home foster care. That compares to only an estimated 4 to 5 percent of children in the general population.

It's a discrepancy that raises a "red flag," Sheldon said, but he added that he'll wait for the task force's findings before making any judgments.

"We need to constantly keep the face of Gabriel Myers continually in our minds and in our hearts and get this right," Sheldon said.

Sheldon said he didn't believe an erroneous memo issued by his department contributed to failures to obtain parental consent or court orders. It said those requirements could be bypassed if psycotropic drugs are prescribed for non-psychiatric purposes. Sheldon said few people knew about the memo and he rescinded it when he found out about it.

The department, private contractors working for the agency and legal service lawyers will try to obtain parental consent or court orders for all children who have been prescribed such drugs by June 5. Sheldon said he also is asking dependency judges to expedite those cases.

Parents must be advised about specific drugs including warnings of potential hazards before giving informed consent, Sheldon said.

Standard medical consent forms, such as one Gabriel's mother signed, do not meet that requirement. Sheldon said Candace Myers also may have been high on prescription drugs when she signed the form as authorities took the boy away from her in a restaurant parking lot. Xanax and other prescription drugs were found in her car.

During the last few weeks of his life, Gabriel's mother lost her visitation rights and he lived in three different foster homes, was told he was going back to Ohio, lost his toys, changed therapists and switched psychotropic drugs, Sheldon said. He said those changes would have been traumatic for anyone regardless of age.

2009 May 28