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California's foster care kids are prescribed psychotropic drugs, some not approved for children

For Joymara Coleman, a 24-year-old Hayward student pursuing an African-American studies degree, the medications she was prescribed in foster care
For Joymara Coleman, a 24-year-old Hayward student pursuing an African-American studies degree, the medications she was prescribed in foster care "took away the essence of who I was." She no longer takes Abilify or Trazodone, but keeps them in her apartment as a reminder of what she has overcome. Coleman's story is told in, "Drugging Our Kids," a Bay Area News Group investigation by Karen de Sá.
Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group

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Nearly one in every four children in California's foster care stem are being given psychotropic drugs, some of which haven't necessarily been approved for kids.

In a new investigative report for the San Jose Mercury News, reporter Karen de Sá found that the rates these foster children receive psychiatric drugs are three times more than other kids nationwide.

"That is really bathing the brain in a chemical wash," says de Sá.

There is an argument for the need of these drugs in some cases. Children, faced with the emotional trauma of being torn from their family or being bounced from home to home, may lash out angrily and uncontrollably.

However, de Sá says there is not enough evidence to prove that these drugs are effective on children this young.

"Some of these drugs are approved by the FDA for very narrow purposes," she says. "Instead, these drugs are being prescribed to tamp down troublesome behaviors."

She adds that the prescriptions don't get at the heart of the trauma, instead letting psychological issues go unaddressed.

Many former foster youths also described side effects from drugs that still persist today.

For example, Sade Daniels, now 26, has scrawled "255" on her bathroom mirror as a reminder of the weight gains she's battled since being up on drugs.

"When I look back as an adult at who I was when I was initially diagnosed and given the medication — I needed love," Daniels told the San Jose Mercury News. “The system relies heavily on medication to do a job that parents are supposed to do.”

The first part of de Sá's series has already prompted swift action in the state capital.

Darrell Steinberg, state senate president pro tempore, called for more oversight of the foster care system and the role that drug companies play – the state paid more than $226 million on psychotropic meds for foster children, which is 72 percent of the money it spends on all drugs for these kids.

Meanwhile state Sen. Jim Beall says he'll convene a hearing with the Senate Human Services Committee to review the policies of doctors and foster care officials.

Part one of de Sá's multi-part series is now online, with more installments coming soon in the upcoming days and weeks.

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