Prescription of drugs to foster youth under scrutiny in Sonoma County
When she was 9 years old, Angelica De La Torre saw her mother fall from her pedestal of strength and virtue into a place torn apart by methamphetamine addiction. Unable to deal with the loss of the single most important person in her life, De La Torre herself fell into depression and helplessness.
At 13, De La Torre was taken from a broken home by the Sonoma County welfare system. Soon after that she was prescribed Zoloft and Prozac to help her deal with her depression, anger and sorrow. Instead, she said she used those psychotropic pills to try to kill herself.
“That was my preferred way of trying to commit suicide,” said De La Torre, now 21. “I took the whole bottle because I didn’t want to deal with something being wrong with me, like I was not capable of living a normal life. … I didn’t want to feel like I couldn’t be happy without having to take something.”
De La Torre, now a student at Santa Rosa Junior College with an eye on a career in naturopathic medicine, continued to take psychotropic medications after entering the local foster care system. She said she laments never being given an alternative to the drugs, which she said did nothing to make her feel better.
“If anything, it made me feel like suicide was a better option,” she said.
De La Torre said she believes she was inappropriately prescribed psychotropic medications as a means of controlling behavioral and emotional issues that should have been dealt with in other ways.
That belief is at the core of a major controversy facing the state’s foster care system, where more than 26 percent of all foster children between the ages of 11 and 17 were prescribed psychotropic medications last year. About half of those kids were on antipsychotic drugs, according to the latest state figures.
Such alarming rates have drawn the attention of investigators for the California Medical Board, who are trying to determine if physicians may be inappropriately prescribing the medications. The board’s review comes as county social welfare departments across the state are also trying to grapple with any potential problems.
Sonoma County is at the top of the list of counties with the highest rates of psychotropic prescriptions among foster youth. Nearly 23 percent of all local foster kids were on the drugs during the 12-month period that ended last June, nearly double the 11.8 percent rate for all 79,166 children, infants to 18, who were in the state’s foster care system.
“You have to ask: What are doctors in Sonoma County learning about how to prescribe?” said Carmen Balber, executive director for Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group that in recent years has called for tougher monitoring of medication practices in the foster care system.
Some children in the foster system warrant a psychotropic prescription, Balber said. But the current levels are “disturbing,” she said, particularly since the young people involved have fewer advocates than most other kids.
“The big concern is that these medications are being used to control behavior instead of legitimate mental illness,” Balber said. “It is impossible that one quarter of kids in the foster system have such severe mental illness to justify these medications.”
Scrutiny of doctors
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a set of bills aimed at curbing the overuse of psychotropic medications in the state’s foster care system. The bills increased the responsibility of the juvenile court system, the state Department of Social Services, public health nurses and others to monitor the use of psychotropic medications on an individual and statewide level. But foster youth advocates say the bills omitted one key player: doctors who prescribe the medications.
This year, state Sen. Mike?McGuire, D-Healdsburg, has sponsored a bill that would authorize the California Medical Board to collect confidential information about psychotropic medications prescribed to foster youth. The legislation, SB 1174, which is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, would allow the medical board to investigate possible cases where a physician is overprescribing or inappropriately prescribing psychotropic drugs.
McGuire said the California foster care system is overusing psychotropic medications, which may prove harmful over time to the children placed under system care.
The drugs are necessary for some youths who have experienced “incredible trauma,” he said, but are in many cases being used to control their behavior and substituted for the therapy they need.
“We’re talking about people’s lives,” McGuire said. “California has known for a decade that psychotropic medications and antipsychotics have been overprescribed and we haven’t done a damn thing about it.”