By Karen de Sá, firstname.lastname@example.org, San Jose Mercury News
SACRAMENTO — Creating sweeping new protections for tens of thousands of California’s most traumatized children, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed the nation’s most comprehensive set of laws to curb the overprescribing of psychiatric drugs in foster care.
“When we take kids away from their parents, we become their parents, and we assume the highest obligation to ensure that those kids have the best chance to thrive in life,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. “And these bills give us the tools to make sure that kids don’t just get pills but that they get high quality mental health treatment and that their well-being is closely monitored.”
“The ‘Drugging Our Kids’ documentary put the state on notice,” Mitchell said, “and Gov. Brown has now put the tools in our hands to ensure that foster kids in our care are not over-drugged for profit or convenience by those we pay to nurture and protect them.”
The newspaper’s investigation found the vast majority of medicated foster youth were prescribed antipsychotics, which often lead to debilitating side effects from lethargy to morbid obesity. The series showed how the state foster care system often relied on the drugs to address behavioral problems associated with trauma — not the severe mental illnesses they were designed to treat.
Under the new laws, more information will be provided to the juvenile courts where the medications are approved. And public health nurses who work with foster youth will have greater access to children’s medical files, and play a larger role in monitoring medicated children’s care.
Beginning next year, regular reports will be produced on the number of prescriptions children have received, and whether they also received counseling services. And residential group homes that allow excessive prescribing could face corrective-action plans.
“I hope that the child welfare agencies across the nation — not just in the state of California — will take heed and will start to implement the same laws and regulations,” said Joymara Coleman, 25, an East Bay college student and former foster youth featured in the newspaper’s series. Sen. Beall agreed that the legislation will likely have national sweep.
“There’s already a lot of discussion going on nationally on this subject and I think people are realizing that overmedication is a huge problem in group homes and the foster care system and these reforms are definitely needed on a national level,” Beall said.
But Michael Nash — a recently retired presiding judge of the Los Angeles juvenile court who championed better oversight of psych meds — urged caution.
“These bills are a step in the right direction for foster children in California who are being administered psych meds,” he wrote in an email. “However, they are not a panacea and do not relieve anyone who is involved with foster children from giving them any less attention than they would give their own children.”
Despite the progress, the legislation’s more far-reaching goals were weakened following multiple amendments and intensive lobbying by associations representing physicians and group homes. Senate Bill 253, which would have called upon doctors to provide better justification for prescriptions before judges approved them, was removed from the bill package late in the legislative season. That bill, considered the most significant proposed reform, will be reactivated in January, according to its author, state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel.
Although physician groups pushed back against Monning’s bill and many of the other bills’ provisions, on Tuesday, the president of the California Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offered only praise.
“We’re happy to hear that these three bills have been signed into law,” Robert Holloway said. “We hope that they work the way they’re intended and that they improve care.”
Holloway went on to say that his organization — which fired a last-minute salvo against Monning’s bill that delayed its progress — intends to remain involved in efforts still to come: “We hope to continue working with the legislature in the next few years to keep improving the way we care for kids in the foster care system.”
Tuesday was a celebratory day at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, which led the reform efforts. “We can cut side effects earlier, we can notice if a kid is gaining weight or losing weight, we can notice if it’s having the effect it’s supposed to have, and we can change their treatment if kids have an opportunity to weigh in,” said Anna Johnson, the center’s health policy analyst. “People will now be paying attention.”
Tuesday’s news was emotional for former foster youths Rochelle Trochtenberg and Tisha Ortiz — who both testified repeatedly in the state Capitol as the legislation was being considered. Ortiz, a 23-year-old college student from Hayward, said she was simply “ecstatic.”
And for Trochtenberg, 33, there is now a new way forward. “It’s personally a piece in my healing to feel like I overcame systemic abuse and was fortunate enough to be able to have a voice in preventing other foster youth from experiencing the debilitating effects of being overmedicated,” she said. “It’s better healing than any drug to be part of this.”
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.