California Lawmakers Scrutinize Psychotropic Drug Prescriptions to Foster Kids

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In California, 63,000 children and teenagers are in foster care in private homes or group homes run by the state.

A quarter of them were prescribed potent psychotropic drugs.

That sobering statistic was unearthed in a Bay Area News Group investigation last year, which analyzed a decade of state statistics. The drugs include Lithium and Depakote as well as anti-psychotics such as Haldol, Risperdal and Abilify.

Former foster kids and public health officials addressed the issue in a hearing Tuesday. They told senators who oversee state agencies responsible for foster youth that the problem is most acute in group homes where half the youth are prescribed one or more psychotropic drugs.

“I remember lining up with more than half of the girls I was in group home settings with, to receive our meds” said Iris Hoffman, 18, “then proceed to class, sleep through our first classes, dozing off. This is more than half of us!”


Hoffman testified that most of the girls wanted to get off the drugs, but were afraid to try.

“There are all kinds of punishments that you have to be fearful of," she said, "if you are to refuse medication that is prescribed to you by a psychiatrist that only meets with you for an hour a month.”

Sen. Mike McGuire (D-San Rafael) chairs the Senate Oversight Committee for Human Services.

“All too often, wonder drugs have become the first response in this state," he said. “We all know we must do better.”

Over the last 10 years, McGuire said, Medi-Cal, the state's health insurance program for people who are low income, has spent $226 million on psychotropic medication. More than 70 percent of that money was spent on foster children.

McGuire pressed state agency representatives at the hearing on whether they agreed that prescription rates were far too high.

“There’s very deep concern about the volume,” responded Will Lightbourne, head of the Department of Social Services, the agency which oversees foster care.

Lightbourne said an overhaul of California’s foster care system already underway reflects that concern. The state seeks to expand alternative therapies for kids, restrict the use of psychotropic drugs -- especially prescribing drugs to control kids’ behavior -- and reduce the number of children sent to group homes and shorten their stays. “All that says, yes, we want to bring those numbers down,” Lightbourne said.

But he cautioned that it would be take years to achieve the reforms.

State lawmakers at the hearing planned to move forward with reforms of their own.

Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), the chair of the Senate Committee on Mental Health, said he would introduce two bills to protect foster children.

One bill would require public health nurses to oversee foster kids’ medication; another would establish treatment protocols and oversight in group homes.

Beall also co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) to require state agencies to collect and share data on how many kids are taking psychotropic drugs, at what dose and for how long.