July 28, 2015

Annual 2015: Overuse of psychotropic drugs among children in state custody

Children in foster care and the juvenile justice system often suffer from trauma, depression and/or mental disorders.  They frequently come from unstable family environments, have been mentally or physically abused, and suffer dislocation from frequent changes of schools, foster parents or facilities.

Powerful psychiatric drugs can stabilize some children and allow them to return to their families after periods away from them in group homes.

But experts say that children in foster care, the juvenile justice system and residential treatment facilities are given psychotropic medications — including some of the most powerful antipsychotic drugs — at much higher rates than their peers. 

“The child welfare systems are failing to coordinate the way that medications are administered to these children,” said Sara Bartosz, a children’s rights lawyer with Children’s Rights of New York City.  “There has been increasing awareness of this from coast to coast.”

Bartosz is one of the speakers at the American Bar Association Commission on Youth at Risk program, “I Feel Like a Zombie: Legal Ethics and Overuse of Psychotropic Drug Use among Children in State Custody.”   The panel will be held at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago and blends scientific and legal expertise.  Panelists will inform lawyers about psychotropic drug use among children, so they can ask the right questions, protect the rights of these youth and their parents and improve representation.

The session is scheduled for Friday, July 31, 3-4:30 p.m., at the Hyatt Regency, Gold Level, West Tower, Regency Ballroom C.

The panel will be moderated by David Jackson, a Chicago Tribune reporter and Pulitizer Prize finalist whose investigations often focus on disadvantaged youth. Panelists include: Ernestine S. Gray, presiding judge, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, New Orleans; Michael Naylor, child psychiatrist, Institute for Juvenile Research, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Bartosz.

“Are we just going along with the recommendations [to administer drugs] because they will make ‘it easier to manage’ the children?” said Judge Ernestine S. Gray, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court of New Orleans.  “The question I always want people to ask:  ‘If this were my child, would I be comfortable or supportive of the medicine regimen?’”

Unlike children in stable family environments, where a trip to the doctor involves parents knowing and keeping the child’s medical history and records, keeping track and monitoring drug administration to children in foster care and the juvenile justice system is far more challenging for children’s advocates.