Seventeen-year-old Karina is not an adult and is not schizophrenic, but for years, the Florida foster-care system kept her drugged on antipsychotic medications meant for adults, including a drug favored by psychiatrists called Risperdal.
"If you get upset one little time, one little bit, start raising your voice, [they say,] 'Oh, give her some medication,'" says Karina. "There's no other way they can control us, so they say."
Children's advocates say her story is part of a national epidemic of legal drug abuse in which children who are not mentally ill are prescribed powerful psychotropic medicines that have only been safety tested for adults.
"These kids are shaking, these kids are drooling, these kids are zombies," says child welfare advocate and Miami law professor Carolyn Salisbury, speaking of the side effects psychotropic drugs have on some children. She says the Florida foster-care system puts too many kids in "chemical straitjackets."
"They are using kids' bad behavior to justify doping them up with antipsychotic drugs," Salisbury adds. "They are supposed to be used for schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, not merely for conduct disorder."
Mental health experts say the foster-care controversy is a part of bigger picture. Today's psychiatry, in general, favors drugs over counseling. Managed care likes the drugs because they are cheaper than therapy, and the drugs themselves are better than ever. Add that trend to the troubled population of kids in foster care, and advocates see a prescription for abuse.
"Psychiatry is out of control when it comes to drugging children," says Dr. Peter Breggin, a critic of drugs in psychiatry. He says giving kids new-generation drugs like Risperdal is dangerous.
"The drug has an effect," Breggin says. "The effect is basically a chemical lobotomy . . . It reaches the point of negligence when the laziness is to drug our children rather than to resolve conflicts with them . . . You can't drug a child into submission without harming that child."
In Florida, foster-care officials admit they don't know the long-term safety of these drugs, but Dr. Eric Handler says in some severely troubled kids, a drug like Risperdal can make the difference between going to jail and going to school.
When asked why children have been given drugs that haven't been studied on kids, Handler says, "A lot of the time, these are the only medications that can be used for that diagnosis."
The Florida Department of Children and Families is now investigating charges that it has misused antipsychotic drugs in foster care. And the federal government and several physicians' groups recently called for studies to see if the psychotropic drugging of children is out of control.
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