Wednesday, March 28, 2007

California bill proposed to regulate psychiatric drugging of foster children

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Come on, Rebecca, it's time for your "happy pills"

Photo of Rebecca Riley from

Does this little girl look like she needed to be on antipsychotic drugs to you?
Yes, her parents actually referred to the psychotropic meds as "happy medicine" and "sleepy medicine."

Accountabilty for overmedicating children

Photograph of Rebecca's parents, Michael and Rebecca Riley from the Boston Globe.

In Hull, Massachusetts, Rebecca Riley perished from an overdose of prescription drugs.

Was it an accident? Did she sneak into the medicine cabinet?
No, her doctor prescribed the drugs, and her parents gave them to her, just as they also doled out similar drugs to her 6-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother.

Here are the drugs that four-year-old Rebecca was prescribed:

1.) Seroquel, an antipsychotic drug
2.) Depakote, a mood stabilizing drug
3.) Clonidin, a blood pressure medication often prescribed for ADHD

These drugs are approved by the FDA for adult use only - yet doctors frequently prescribe them for children.

When parents overmedicate their four-year-old child with psychotropic drugs and kill her, we are shocked. We want them to be held accountable. Because of this, Rebecca's parents are being prosecuted for murder.

Let's not overlook the other entitities that should be held accountable for unnecessarily drugging children...

1.) If the government is "parenting" foster children, then it should be held to the same standard as Rebecca Riley's parents.

In the foster care system, 3-year-olds are given anti-schizophrenic medication. Six-year-olds are taking Prozac. Nine-year-olds are being prescribed four psychotropic medications at the same time.

Poor record-keeping masks the scope of this problem. But recent CBS research into Los Angeles group homes for foster children uncovered evidence of teenagers being medicated without court intervention, and with minimal doctor oversight. As one social worker reported to CBS, "It's just a chemical restraint. We don't know what else to do with you."

Former foster children report overmedication during their time in the system. Trayvon Walker reports, "In one day, I would say (I was given) probably 20 different medications. I was on Depakote, Wellbutrin, Triptal, Clonidin, Dispar." (Do these drugs seem familiar? Two of them were also prescribed to Rebecca, above).

What was the outcome of these drugs on Trayvon's health? It caused him to have kidney renal failure.

2.) Insurance companies contribute to this problem, because they are often more willing to pay for drugs than therapy. Phamaceutical and managed care companies benefit financially from prescribing lots of drugs to foster children. So do group homes.

3.) Shouldn't medical practioners be held accountable for overmedicating children and teenagers?

Regarding Rebecca's untimely death, Dr. Kayoko Kifuji has taken a leave of absence until the case has been resolved. The medical establishment where Rebecca was treated, Tufts-New England Medical Center has issued a statement saying that they support Dr. Kifuji and her decisions.

Doctors of conscience, however, are speaking out about this issue.

*Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University who runs a trauma clinic said, "Most of the patients I see who have been misdiagnosed have been told that they have bipolar disorder."

He continued, "This diagnosis is made with no understanding of the context of their life. Then they're put on these devastating medications and condemned to life as a psychiatry patient."

*Child psychiatrist Joseph Penn of Brown University Medical School expressed his dismay at the practice of "polypharmacy" with children:

When one drug causes side effects in children, they are often given another drug to deal with the side effects. If stimulants cause insomnia, the child is given sleeping pills - despite the fact that safety tests have not been done to measure the effects these drugs have on children, both alone and (especially) in conjunction with other drugs.

Child's death raises concerns about psychiatric drugs. CNN, March 23, 2007.
Cramer, Maria and Raja Mishra. Girl fed fatal overdose, court told. Parents arraigned; lawyer questions doctor's role. Boston Globe, Feb. 7, 2007.
Elias, Marilyn. More kids get multiple psychiatric drugs. USA Today, Aug. 1, 2005.
Goldstein, David. Foster kids medicated for money? CBS, Nov. 13, 2006.
Higgins, Gary. Debate over children and psychiatric drugs. New York Times, Feb. 15, 2007.
States wrestle with medicating foster kids; Critics worry that psychiatric drugs flow too frequently to forgotten children. MSNBC, March 13, 2007.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Proposed $17 million cuts threaten Rhode Island teens aging out of foster care

Photo of Gov. Carcieri from

While other states explore options to extend their services to young people transitioning out of foster care, Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri has proposed lowering the cut-off age for foster care services from 21 to 18 years old.

According to his spokeman, "It is the grim reality of having to reduce spending by $360 million. We have to balance the budget. We have no other option."

You have no other option? I think you do. These teenagers did not create the deficit. They did not choose to have parents who cannot or will not accept responsibility for them. Other young adults in "normal families" between the ages of 18-24 can live with their parents - and, statistically, 50% of them choose to do so.

Teens who have aged out of foster care know what it's like to have limited options. Has anyone in our lives taught us how to budget? How to cook? How to drive? We know what it's like to have limited options because there is no one in our lives to catch us if we fall.

A federal study of youth who had been in foster care found that one-fourth had experienced homelessness after leaving the foster care system. We former 'foster kids' are at risk for homelessness, incarceration, unwed pregnancy and joblessness.

Governor Carcieri, as a former foster child and someone who has done the research, I have some news for you. You will 'pay' for former foster children. Either you will be proactive and help them transition to adulthood, or you will be negligent and end up paying welfare or prison costs.

When I left foster care, I attended college. I started college when I was 16 years old. I was thankful for grants. I was thankful for loans. I was thankful for temporary guardians until I was 17 years old. And, frankly, the state where I lived was lucky that I chose to seek higher education, rather than repeating the cycle.

Would you rather pay for me to receive a welfare payment or loan me the money for college and grad school?

I agree wholeheartedly with Lisa Guillette, the executive director of the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association, "It's almost like building the bridge and not connecting the rest of the highway. When we get them to the most critical point of their young lives we're going to abandon them? It's immoral and it's bad policy. It's walking away from the investment we've made in them."

Bayles, Fred and Sharon Cohen. "Chaos often the only parent for abused and neglected children." (AP) Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2000.
Norton, Justin M. Rhode Island ponders future of foster care. Associated Press, March 16, 2007.

Monday, March 19, 2007

No, Michael Robinson, your parenting skills are only worsening over time

Photo of Sue Hutchins and boyfriend Michael Robinson from

After beating his infant son into an irreversible coma, Michael Robinson said, "When can I see my kids again? I love my kids. I never said that I was the best father. Maybe I can get better with time."

Time. Let's talk about the concept of time.

Infant Dana Robinson could live up to 20 years on a feeding tube with no awareness of his own existence.

Or, let's review how many times Robinson and his girlfriend have been charged with child abuse before.

The couple has a long history of child abuse allegations, including three detailed investigations. Hutchins' two daughters have been with relatives since an abuse investigation in 2005.

Robinson actually ordered his three sons to hit Robinson's daughters in order to "toughen them up."

Dana's two-year-old brother Daven's thigh bone was broken in three places when he was one month old. The spiral fracture was "indicative of a rapid twisting of great force."

Mother, Sue Hutchins, must also carry the weight of responsibility. When two-year-old Draven was temporarily removed from her custody in 2005, a court order was issued for her not to live with Robinson.

She abided by this order throughout her pregnancy with Dana. However, three weeks before Dana was hospitalized, Children Services received an anonymous phone call that the couple were back together again, if not residing in the same household.

Before beating one-year-old Dana into a coma, Robinson also broke the baby's ribs. When he arrived at the hospital, baby Dana was covered with bruises, bite marks and indentations from pinching.

Where are Dana's six siblings?
- Robinson's other three sons (ages 8, 10 and 12) are living with an uncle.
- Hutchins' two daughters by another man (ages 9 and 11) are living with their paternal grandparents.
- Children's Services are trying to revoke custody of two-year-old Draven and place him and Dana up for adoption.

What charges are being levied against these parents?
- Both Robinson and Hutchins are currently housed in the Logan County Jail.
- Michael Robinson is being charged with felony child endangering, felonious assault and domestic violence
- Sue Hutchins is charged with a felony count of permitting child abuse

Man wanted tough baby, police say. Columbus Dispatch, March 18, 2007.
Zachariah, Holly. Doctors: Beaten baby is brain-dead. Columbus Dispatch, March 16, 2007.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Licensed to drive - Teens in the AK foster care system

A critical independent living skill for teenagers is learning how to drive a car. For teens in foster care, this is as important, if not more so.

It can be hard to build a future while hoofing it or taking the bus. Transportation is an integral part of holding a job.

However, anyone under 18 who applies for a driver's license is required to have a signature from a parent, guardian, employer or any other person willing to be held responsible for any damage caused by the teenage driver.

But what about teens in foster care?
-Some parents cannot or will not sign.
-Some foster parents can't afford liability coverage.
-Some teens in foster care are housed in group homes or residential facilities, and have no one to sign for them.
-Some teenagers who are wards of the state live independently and have no foster parents.

A new law in Arkansas allows the director of the Children and Family Services Division or a designated employee to sign for a foster child without assuming personal liability.

Under Senate Bill 247 by Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, the state of Arkansas will assume liability for driving accidents by foster children.

No other method would allow foster children old enough to drive but not to obtain their own liability insurance coverage to get valid driver's licenses,
bill supporters told the committee.

The estimated cost is about $266,000 in annual premiums and about $5,000 annually in deductibles resulting from accidents or other claims.

The financial impact upon the state is expected to be less than the existing impact of teen-agers being unable to contribute fully to their own support through jobs.

The bill passed 26-0 in the Senate and then went to the House. Governor Beebee signed it into law last week. Eligibility is dependent on criteria such as good behavior and good grades.

Senator Sue Madison says that she is more proud of the bill's passage than of any other work that she has ever done.

Legislative briefs, Arkansas News Bureau, March 13, 2007.
Foster kids may be allowed driving privileges. Today's THV, March 11, 2007.
New law allows driver's licenses for foster children. Fox 16, March 12, 2007.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ohio foster parents under scrutiny

In Ohio, since the death of Marcus Feisel, the state is looking more closely into the criminal records of foster parents, and figuring out how to manage the process of ongoing screening.

Marcus' foster father, David Carroll, had been arrested for domestic violence, but child welfare agencies did not know about it, because the only criminal background check for Ohio foster parents was at their initial certification.

Now, in Hamilton County, foster parents - and anyone over 18 living in their homes - will undergo continuing background checks. .

305 of Hamilton County's 750 foster children are living with parents licensed through the county. Those parents have been or are being checked.

While conducting background checks on their current Hamilton County foster parents, officials discovered that 27 licensed foster parents had been arrested on charges including welfare fraud, assault and domestic violence and child endangering.

Background checks have not yet been conducted on Hamilton County foster parents who are licensed licensed through private agencies.

The county is also working with law enforcement on an 'instant notification system' if a foster parent is arrested. All new foster parents are entered into this system. Current foster parents have 30 days to agree to register, or the county will remove the children from their homes

Another issue is that, throughout the state, communication breakdowns often occur between public and private agencies:

- Counties sometimes place children in private agency foster homes without communicating with private agencies, to make sure that this will be a "good fit" for the child.

- Counties refuse to disclose information to private agencies (e.g. counties refuse to place children with a certain foster family, but won't tell the private agency why).

- Three Ohio counties refuse to fill out dispositional letters for private agencies seeking information about foster parents.

Ohio will soon house all of their information about foster placements in S.A.C.W.I.S. (State Automated Child Welfare Information System).

Every state is "supposed" to have a statewide central registry for foster parents, but few actually have one.

Good news
Private agencies will finally be given the same information that public agencies are given. It will be kept in one place (ODJFS) to avoid having to contact all 88 Ohio counties, in order to find out if a foster parent has allegations against them in another county.

Information-sharing between counties and private agencies that provide foster homes is important because "level of care" is a huge issue.

It is not fair to the foster parents, nor to the children, to place a child with special needs with foster parents who lack the training and expertise to meet that child's needs (e.g. the Gravelles).

-Unsubstantiated allegations will be booted after 3 months.
-Indicated allegations will be booted after 5 years.
-Substantiated allegations will be booted from the system after 10 years.

Now, I realize that foster parents can be falsely accused, and that they don't want this to follow them around forever.

However, if a foster parent is accused of physical or sexual abuse of a child, and these allegations are 'substantiated,' should that foster parent have another chance to take in more children 10 years later?

According to state law, a felony conviction will preclude someone from being a foster parent. I know that assault on an adult is a felony conviction. What about assault on a child?

As a former foster child, my primary concern will always be the safety of children.

Background checks turn up Ohio foster parent arrests: Child's death spurred closer look at system. Lexington Herald-Leader, March 5, 2007, pg. B3.
Brown, Jessica. Criminal checks get OK: Foster parents have 30 days to agree. Cincinnati Enquirer, March 8, 2007, pg. C1.
Foster parents get ultimatum
Coolidge, Sharon. Allow background checks or lose children, agency orders. Cincinnati Enquirer, March 6, 2007, pg. A1.
McCarty, Mary. Keeping track of foster parents vital. Dayton Daily News, March 8, 2007, pg. A4.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

FosterClub All-Star program

My friend Lupe Ortiz-Tovar was a Foster Club All-Star during its second year of existence... and the experience changed her life!

Internships for Foster Youth FosterClub will select 12 young adults, ages 18 to 24, who have experienced foster care at some point in their lives, to participate in an internship program called the All-Star Program.

The interns will start their year-long commitment this summer at Portland State University in Portland, OR.

After a week of intense training, the All-Stars will travel the country participating in State Independent Living Conferences, various National Foster Care events, and more.

These interns will help other youth in foster care, earn approximately $3,600 over the summer, and improve their leadership skills. Completed applications are due by March 31, 2007.

For more information, please visit their website:

Collector families committing child abuse

Photograph of Michael and Sharen Gravelle from

"Collector families" is a term referring to adoptive (or foster) families who take in large numbers of hard-to-place children and receive financial subsidies.

Three questions to consider regarding large adoptive families:

1.) How large are they?
2.) How much individual attention are the children getting?
3.) Are the parents motivated by compassion, or financial gain?

How many is too many?
Licensed day cares and special education facilities have a strict staff-child ratio.

Shouldn't foster care and adoptions pay more attention to how many children are living in the household? Particularly for treatment foster care, medically fragile children or children with special needs?

-Illinois licensing rules rule out placing more than six children in a foster home.
-In Michigan, it is not uncommon for foster families to house eight children at a time.
-In Ohio, the limit was previously set at ten children, although the Gravelle case prompted recommendations for lowering that number.

I'm not knocking all large adoptive families. In fact, my friend Johanna has a large adoptive family of her own. However, I do encourage caution.

The best case scenario for adoptive placements are storylines worthy of a Hallmark movie. But, the worst case scenarios are the stuff that nightmares are made of…

1.) Michelle and Jeffery Reid have been operating an unlicensed foster care home in North Carolina for years. Officials say the couple misrepresented themselves as experts in treating specific emotional disorders and were getting large sums of money from various agencies. Despite their lack of qualifications, they have housed up to 15 special-needs children in their home at one time.

The Reids accomplished this deception by adopting out of state, in Wisconsin, Kentucky, Illinois and Colorado. Allegations of abuse were made in June 2003, April 2004, December 2005 and June 2006.

2.) Michael and Sharen Gravelle were allowed to adopt 11 children with a host of health and behavioral problems. They couldn't handle the number and needs of the children in their care, so they made them sleep in wooden cages without pillows or mattresses.

The Gravelles were unqualified to care for special needs children. In fact, Michael Gravelle previously lost custody of his biological daughter after allegations of sexual abuse. And yet, they were entrusted with 11 children, and paid at least $500 per month in adoption subsidies for each child.

3.) Elizabeth Hazelbaker, a widow living in Butler County, Ohio, had 11 kids living in her home. Six were adopted. Five were Butler County foster children, ranging in age from 1 to 16.

A private agency in Kettering had placed five additional children with Hazelbaker after her husband died in 2003. State records show that the agency's caseworkers didn't check to see if they were more than Hazelbaker could handle alone.

Hazelbaker became abusive after her husband's death. She taped or leashed younger children into their chairs and spit into children's mouths as punishment for being too loud. Children were forced to forage into the garbage because they weren't given enough food to eat.

4.) Mercury Liggins adopted seven children and continued to collect $3,584 a month for their care during the ten months after she had abandoned them in Nigeria.

Before adopting her seven Texas children, Mercury had also adopted two other children from a man she was married to from 1979 to 1990.

5.) Thomas and Debra Schmitz, of Trenton, Tennesseee had 18 children in their house at the time of their arrest - including children whom they had adopted, foster children and children unofficially transferred to their care by other foster/adoptive parents who "needed a break."

The Schmitz proported themselves to others as experts, but their method of disciplining the children in their care was abusive and bizarre. They ordered one girl to eat her own vomit, made another girl sleep naked on the floor, forced a young boy wear soiled diapers on his head, sat on one girl and urinated on her, and pushed a wheelchair-bound girl into a swimming pool.

Police found evidence that the couple had wired a warning system to alert them when visitors came up the driveway.

Apparently, child welfare workers made visits to the house over the years and reported nothing amiss. Which really makes you wonder about the common sense factor...

Eleven children taken from home after abuse allegations. WKYC, Oct. 5, 2005.
Garcia, Carmen. Elon couple face charges in foster care fraud. WMFR News, March 4, 2007.
Hewitt, Bill. Safe haven or house of horror? People Weekly, Feb. 13, 2006, pg. 1000.
Langford, Terri. 'Y'all are going to Nigeria.' Houston Chronicle, January 7, 2007.
McCain, Tracey. Foster Parents charged with child abuse: Alamance County deputies say an Elon couple abused 14 foster kids. WFMY, March 1, 2007.
Sheila McLaughlin. Agency overlooked foster care dangers. Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 24, 2006.
Police charge foster parents with abuse: Couple allegedly did not have license to care for the disabled children. Times-News, Feb. 28, 2007.
Warren, Jay. Five Butler Co. children involved in foster care case. WCPO, Oct. 25, 2005.