The California Senate's Human Services Committee began deliberations on what some members called the "staggering number" of foster children on psychiatric medications as it considers a wide range of possible policy changes to reduce the usage of the drugs.
Citing reports in The Times, the San Jose Mercury News and other media outlets, senators held a special oversight hearing on the topic Tuesday, saying the evidence is clear that too many youths are on the medications, especially the potent anti-psychotics that some child advocates say caregivers sometimes use as "chemical restraints" to control rather than treat their charges.
"We're responsible for the well-being of children ... who are in our care and custody after experiencing abuse or neglect," said Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). "Reports that these children are being prescribed powerful, mind-numbing drugs at over three times the rate for all adolescents are very troubling."
The Times reported last week that the use of psychiatric drugs is much more widespread in Los Angeles County than previously known.
About 3,000 foster youth in the county take the medications, including more than 1 in 4 adolescents in the system. Statewide, 51% of children on psychiatric medications are taking the most powerful class of the drugs — antipsychotics.
Most scrutiny centers on a new class of antipsychotics sold under such brand names as Abilify, Seroquel, Risperdal and Zyprexa. These drugs, which have strong sedative powers, have been linked by researchers to sudden and severe weight gain, increased risk for diabetes and movement disorders.
Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) have introduced legislation that would improve data collection to identify problematic prescribing patterns and individual instances in which children are receiving especially suspect combinations of drugs. Another bill by Beall would require public health nurses to oversee and monitor each child on the medications.
Foster youth and advocates testified that the medications are often prescribed by psychiatrists who spend little time with their patients.
Iris Hoffman, an intern with the California Youth Connection, an advocacy group for foster youth, said she spent much of her youth on the drugs. At group homes, she said, children are sometimes punished if they refuse to take the medications and risk losing their ability to go outside, make phone calls or other privileges.
"I finally have my voice back. I have some power," Hoffman said. "All those things were taken away from me when I had medications almost forced down my throat."
Sarah Pauter, a former foster child from San Diego, said: "I went from studying for the SATs to being unable to form a coherent sentence."
Some of the participants in the hearing had appeared at a previous legislative hearing in 2006 to discuss policy changes that have since failed to curb the use of the drugs.
"Unfortunately we are a decade down the road and very little progress has been made," said Sen. Mike McGuire (D-San Rafael). "We are more addicted to mind-altering medications than ever."