Senate looking at DJJ probe of psychotropic med use
SENATE LOOKING AT DJJ PROBE OF PSYCHOTROPIC MED USE
By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Oct. 19, 2011…..The Department of Juvenile Justice has run afoul of a key senator over the use of psychotropic drugs on youth in its lockup facilities, and the question of whether the agency takes concerns about the issue seriously enough.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, scolded agency officials earlier this week after they responded to questions about DJJ’s policies on medicating children without mentioning the agency’s internal investigation into the practice.
She also ordered agency officials to fill her in on details of their prescribing practices and update her on the investigation, which representatives of the department were unable to do during a committee meeting on Tuesday.
While DJJ acknowledges that 34 percent of minors in its system are on psychotropic medication, the agency’s secretary, Wansley Walters, didn’t appear before Storms’ committee, and another DJJ official made no mention in testimony to the panel that Walters had thought the problem serious enough that in May she ordered the investigation.
That probe is still underway, but agency officials’ failure to acknowledge it drew a rebuke from Storms at a committee meeting on Tuesday.
“I’m asking you questions about your prescribing practices,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you say, ‘Senator, we know there’s an ongoing investigation into our use of psychotropic drugs for disciplinary purposes?'”
DJJ’s Gayla Sumner replied that it is against agency policy to use mind-altering drugs for discipline or punishment, which opponents of the practice describe as “chemical restraint.”
“We have that written multiple times in our policies,” Sumner said, “and we agree with you that it should not happen.”
Meanwhile, a family practice physician who works with three DJJ facilities in the Tampa Bay area, told the same committee that the use of psychotropics, in general, has become both safer and more effective.
“We know a lot more about brain functioning in children,” said Dr. Phyllis Anderson. “We have better medication, with less side effects, that are able to locate the specific area of the brain that is malfunctioning.”
Anderson said the drugs help children succeed in school and prevent them from hurting themselves.
But Storms said the drugs have lasting consequences. “Aside from the effects on the human body, any child who’s ever been on any psychotropic drug is not eligible for the military,” Storms said.
She also noted that DJJ’s 34 percent medication rate was much higher than the 14.8 percent rate of use of medication reported by another agency, the Department of Children and Families.
“Our children in [DCF] care have been badly burned, some of them have been starved, some of them have been sexually molested, some of them have been abandoned,” she told Anderson. “Your [DJJ] population cannot be more needy. Everyone in our population has had some form of maltreatment.”
Storms instructed DJJ to schedule a meeting with her, update her on its prescribing practices and internal investigation and then come back to the committee. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Walters should appear before the panel at that time.
Later Tuesday, Walters wrote Storms that DJJ had only been asked to provide statistics and that she herself had not been asked to attend “since this was not a DJJ presentation.”
“I also share your concerns regarding the use of psychotropic drugs prescribed to children in DJJ’s care,” she wrote.
The topic arose because the committee also heard an update this week from DCF on its policies regarding the use of psychotropics.
In the wake of the 2009 suicide of seven-year-old Gabriel Myers, who was on two medications typically intended for adults, then-Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon ordered a review of the files of all children in out-of-home foster care.
DCF found that at the time, about 13 percent of Florida foster children were on one or more such drugs, as opposed to five percent in the general child population. DCF also found that in more than 16 percent of cases where children were medicated, the agency lacked proper consent from a guardian or judge.
Now, DCF’s director of Family and Community Services, Jamie Self, told the committee, 14.8 percent of kids in out-of-home care are medicated versus six percent in the general population.
The update on psychotropic meds also followed a Senate interim report on crisis stabilization units, in which adults and children who are a danger to themselves are treated. Since the use of children’s CSU beds is low in the more rural parts of Florida, the interim report suggested reducing the number of beds from 202 to 100 and reallocating as much as $7 million to regions with high adult CSU usage.
“Maybe the reason we’re having under-utilization is we’re drugging all these kids,” said Storms.
The internal review at DJJ in May coincided with the publishing of articles in the Palm Beach Post that, in addition to pointing to the rates of psychotropic drug use, said that one in three psychiatrists who had contracted with DJJ in the prior five years had taken speaker fees or gifts from companies that make such drugs.