Friday, August 12, 2011

I-Team: Troubled Foster Kids Exposed to Powerful Drugs

Posted: Aug 10, 2011 3:16 PM CDT
Updated: Aug 11, 2011 9:24 AM CDT
By Colleen McCarty, Investigative Reporter
By Kyle Zuelke, Photojournalist
By Alex Brauer, Photojournalist

Click here to watch a video that goes with this article.

LAS VEGAS -- The use of powerful mood-altering drugs for mental health treatment is on the rise among kids in the care of Nevada's child welfare system. It's a trend the I-Team first examined back in 2009.

Despite assurances from both state and local officials progress has been painfully and perhaps dangerously slow. The data the I-Team received from both the state and the county is such a mess it's hard to say exactly how much the use of psychotropic medications among kids in care has increased.

Numbers from the state and the county -- regarding the same children -- doesn't match. In addition, figures provided to the I-Team in 2009 are somehow different today.

What is clear is that nearly 30 percent of kids in the system are taking at least one of these medications and the state confirms an increase last year. At the same time both agencies were supposed to be fixing the problem.

"These are the very first kids that were place were placed with us," said Jill Fox, a former foster mom who has taken in some 50 children. While most returned to their birth parents, five did not. Eleven-year-old Brooklyn, 9-year-old Sondra, 6–year-old Jenna, 3-year-old Jackson, and 2-year-old Cooper stayed with Fox.

"With children who've been through the trauma, whether it's neglect or abuse or the trauma of instability in their lives, or the drug and alcohol exposure in utero, things go well for a while and then it goes downhill for a while but we always seem to make it back up the hill," said Fox.

It's a climb that -- for some children in foster care -- involves the use of psychotropic medications. These are powerful mood-altering drugs that can come with severe side effects. The drugs are prescribed to kids as young as three-years old.

"Legitimately there are children whose behaviors are such that we need to medicate to get control of the behaviors, to get some stability, so that they can digest the counseling, they can digest the love and the support, but at what point is somebody going to start taking them off?" Fox said.

According to state Medicaid statistics, nearly 30 percent of kids in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are on at least one psychotropic medication. That's up from two years ago. Despite both Clark County policy and state law drafted at the same time to reduce the numbers.

"Am I disappointed by the slow roll out on this policy? Yes," said Mike Willden who is the head of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services which oversees the state's child welfare system.

"What is the real issue is that children are being overmedicated. Their health is at risk, those kinds of issues. That's the real issue, not whether or not we have the right form or we don't have the right form or something like that. You want to ensure that prescribers are accurately addressing a child's welfare needs," said Willden.

Willden tells the I-Team, despite the two-year delay, both Reno and the rurals have implemented state policy requiring a child's parent or legal guardian, or in their absence, a court consent, to the use of psychotropic medications.

Clark County however -- to Willden's frustration -- has yet to comply.

"I could make excuses for them, I'm not going to. It should've been straightened out a long time ago, even at the state level, we should've moved quicker," he said.

The county declined the I-Team's request for an interview yet earlier this year Tom Morton, the former Director of Clark County Family Services offered this explanation to lawmakers.

"We have been unable to implement our version of the policy because we don't have funds for a psychiatric consultant who can review the medication prescribed by the prescribing psychiatrist or physician."

In a written statement, the county insists it is now working to meet the requirements mandated by both the 2009 and 2011 legislatures to improve the management of psychotropic medications.

Read Clark County's Statement

Until then, moms like Fox, will worry about the little kids on big drugs who depend on the system to keep them safe.

"It needs to be a front burner issue," said Fox.

Clark County has submitted an implementation plan. Director Willden tells the I-Team he's given the county 90 days to come into compliance.

If there is a silver lining, psychotropic drug use among kids age 5 and under is on the decline due in part to additional oversight from Medicaid. Willden says that same oversight will apply to all age groups in the near future.

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