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 Fred Grimm
Published Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Too bad there's no pill for apathy

The conversion of foster-care kids into addled, drooling but easily managed zombies by ordering up injudicious dollops of psychotropic drugs makes for a shocking story.

Except nobody was shocked.

Not in South Florida.

Hundreds of foster kids, taken away from their families and placed in the state-run foster system, have been kept in line by an apparent overuse of powerful drugs, some with daunting side effects. The Herald's Carol Marbin Miller reported that kids consigned to state care are being dosed with powerful antidepressants, anti-psychotics and tranquilizers, some not specifically approved for children.

Child advocates charge that the unruly kids are drugged into a dull and submissive state to make them easier to manage, not because of mental illness. And that the drugs were administered despite some startling side effects.

One boy, reacting to a prescription of Risperdal (one of four psychotropics in his drug regime) gained 30 pounds, developed breasts and began lactating. Last year, Florida prescribed antipsychotic drugs to 5,722 foster children under 10.

But the outrageous treatment of foster kids no longer outrages. The outrageous has become the ordinary. Failures of the foster system have become its most familiar characteristic. And stories exploring those failures have become variations of an old theme. The state's foster system has been sued or its failures cataloged by national child advocates organizations, grand juries and the federal government.

And nobody gets shocked anymore.

Kids on ``chemical restraints'' was a story I forced myself to read, though my inclination, ``Oh no, another foster-care horror story,'' was to retreat to the sports page, where news of failure doesn't numb the soul. Maybe, for most of us, the problems seem too overwhelming. ``It's overwhelming to us who are actively involved,'' said Howard Talenfeld, who represents more than 1,000 Broward County foster kids in a lawsuit against the state Department of Children and Families.

``I think it's so overwhelming, whether it's the department, the public, even the advocates, that we sometimes forget that these are individual children here, who were all victimized before they came into the system,'' said Andrea L. Moore, the child advocate and lawyer who blew the whistle on the administration of powerful drugs like Risperdal, used by a system ``so overwhelmed that it's forced to [use] quick and easy solutions.''


Advocates like Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, rail that drugs are another cheapskate strategy for a state that pays foster parents less to care for children ($11.74 a day) than kennels receive for boarding dogs.

``You can confine a child emotionally by telling him he's worthless or shackle him to a bed or put him in a jail, but there's something very insidious about chemical shackles . . . especially Risperdal, for any age child.'' He said it was worthy of a third-world tyranny.

Andrea Moore would like a bit of outrage to inspire more volunteers for the critically understaffed guardian ad litem program to represent abused and neglected children or, at least, in a few tutors for foster kids. ``Some of these kids don't own a book. They have no one to read to them.''

But we're overwhelmed. We shake our heads, sadly, and shrug.


[Fred Grimm]
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