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Just How Big is The Child Drugging Iceberg?

In Florida last month a 7 year old foster child hanged himself in the bathroom of his Margate foster home. Gabriel Myers was being treated by a psychiatrist at the time of his death and was apparently being given a cocktail of dangerous mind-altering drugs.

Psychiatric drugs are linked to suicidal thoughts, depression, rage and a list of adverse and sometimes fatal side effects. This is so much a cause for concern that the law now requires drug manufacturers to provide warnings as to their dangers and Florida laws, designed to protect children from harm from such medications, forbid any child to be administered psychiatric drugs without parental or judicial approval.

In Gabriel’s case no such approval was obtained and, if true, this would place his psychiatrist in breach of the law. Gabriel’s suicide while on psychiatric medication and given the side effects of such medication suggests that the medication itself could have played a part in the little boy’s impulse to take his own life. At the very least his treatment was ineffective in helping him overcome whatever difficulties he may have been experiencing..

A senior Florida lawmaker who chairs a state Senate committee on children is so concerned that she has asked two state agencies to investigate the psychiatrist who treated Gabriel

In separate letters to the Florida Board of Medicine and the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), state Sen. Ronda R.Storms, a Brandon Republican who chairs the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, requested an investigation leading to a “full report.”

Gabriel ‘s death spurred Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon to appoint a work group to study the agency’s use of psychiatric drugs and its compliance with a 2005 law on the use of such medications on children in state care.

”In my view, this case raised serious concerns which demand attention and answers,” Senator Storms wrote in a May 1 letter to AHCA Secretary Holly Benson.

AHCA runs a state program that monitors the prescribing of mental-health drugs to children, the Medicaid Drug Therapy Management Program. The program tracks the prescribing of mental-health drugs to children, and flags psychiatrists with a high volume of prescriptions of mental-health drugs or potentially dangerous combinations of the medication.

The program scrutinizes the practices of about 17,000 doctors who prescribe medications to children on Medicaid, and about 300 to 450 end up red-flagged.

Dr. Sohail Punjwani, the psychiatrist who was treating Gabriel, had been red-flagged by the medication program every quarter that the list was kept, according to one administrator, .reports The Miami Herald. Surprisingly, considering such a worrying track record, Eulinda Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health reports that Punjwani has not been disciplined before by the Board of Medicine

Senator Storms wanted to know what AHCA was doing to monitor the activities of doctors whose prescribing practices were identified as “problematic” and asked, ”What guidelines or repercussions for red-flagged physicians are in place to prevent practices that result in a loss of life? What actions, legislative remedies or otherwise, should be taken which would provide the citizens of our state a greater level of protection?”

Spokespersons for both state agencies declined to discuss the requests by Storms but Ms Smith confirmed ”It’s very serious when we get a head’s-up from a legislator, That would prompt us to begin the disciplinary process.”

What is emerging now is an indication that it may have been common practice for psychiatric drugs to have been used on foster kids without the parental or judicial consent required by law. In other words, illegal drugging of young children may have been commonplace in the Florida foster care system.

In an effort to sidestep laws put in place to protect children, some doctors were prescribing powerful psychiatric medications to treat “non-psychiatric” issues. For example, if the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa was used on a foster child for “bed wetting” or some other non-psychiatric purpose – no consent from a parent was obtained.

Therefore, the state did not include these drugs when adding up the number of kids in foster care on psychiatric drugs. Therefore, the count of how many children are being drugged may have been considerably under-reported.

Just how many psychiatrists were involved in the illegal child-drugging is not yet clear.

More than 20,000 case files of foster children in Florida are under review in the wake of Gabriel’s death. Just under 10 percent of these children – 1,954 – were listed as being on mood-altering drugs, said John Cooper, the DCF’s acting assistant secretary for operations.

That number is excessive enough considering the age of the children, the devastating side effects the drugs can have and the way psychiatric drugging invariably sets in train a mental and physical deterioration of the victim but it will rise markedly when DCF releases the findings of its current study next week. “I don’t know by how much, but it will be significant,” Cooper said.

In Gabriel’s case, he was listed in the database as being prescribed Adderall, an attention deficit/hyperactivity drug but two others, which Gabriel was taking when he died (Symbyax and Vyvanse) had not been approved by either his parents or a judge – and this is violation of state law.

DCF Director Sheldon, has said he wants every aspect of Gabriel’s case investigated and people held accountable.

So do the rest of us.

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