I Needed More Than Quick Fix Medication

by Michael Place

I recently came across an article written in 2011, by Huffington Post blogger Kaitlin Burnett entitled: “Medicating Foster Kids: Not the Travesty It Seems?”

A provocative title, that did its job and reeled me in. Burnett explains that she understands why medication was proposed for one of the former foster youth she interviewed, stating that his actions (which included beating up other children and suicide attempts) may have justified the use of psychotropic medications on him.

While I do not doubt the severity of this single experience, it is important to grasp that this young man’s story is only one of many. And because medication may have been needed for him, doesn’t mean it’s needed for all “misbehaved” children in care. For children in foster care, medication is sometimes used as a quick fix approach that ultimately overshadows their real problems.

I was one of these children.

Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician and faculty member of the Perelman School of Medicine, recently wrote: “Left with limited options, even the best clinician would agree that the choice of an anti-psychotic for an ‘out of control’ child may be the lesser of evil than letting a family continue to spin out of control.”

Michael Place today, and during his experience with psychiatric meds
Michael Place today, and during his experience with psychiatric meds

But what constitutes being “out of control?”

I ended up in foster care due to my mother’s addiction to heroin. Her addiction was even more prevalent during my pregnancy. Apparently, it served as a calming agent, for when I would kick her, from the insides of her belly.

While in care, I moved about 11 times in a matter of nine years, which only destabilized me further. I was placed in the home of strangers and got my first dose of what it really meant to be in foster care when my first foster family told me I had to move, because they were going to Puerto Rico.

Why couldn’t I go? Wasn’t I a part of the family?

The following nine years in care would only further prove that since I wasn’t their birth child, many foster parents and group home staff members only saw me as a part of their income. Living with family didn’t make much of a difference, either, as my aunt who was married into the family, didn’t want me around at all. It was to the point where she would cause havoc and make it appear as though, I was the culprit. She knew, that as soon as my uncle got home from work, he and all of his six-foot glory, would land a few slaps on my fragile, four-foot frame.

So lets take a moment to digest. At nine, I was taken away from my mother, because her addiction seemed to be more important than my well-being. And the people who were supposed to make it all better, only saw me as a means to their vacations.

How would that make you feel? Worthless, maybe? Do you imagine that you’d do random attention-grabbing acts, just so someone would show you that they really care?

That is exactly what I did. I threw temper tantrums, I wrapped cords around my neck and pretended to pull as hard as I could. I threatened people and did everything my premature mind could conjure up. This was my way of dealing with trauma.

Was I Bipolar? No. But that’s the label doctors gave me, and that led to a plethora of medications that caused my natively thin frame to balloon, faster than I can vividly remember.

Even at my worst moments, I never touched or caused harm to anyone other than myself. Even the self-inflicted harm was physically harmless. I never cut myself, bled or popped any massive amount of pills (other than what was prescribed).

So, was the massive weight gain and heavy sedation, really worth it? Not at all.

What I needed was to be assured that I was loved. I needed to be taught that my behavior was just a reflection of the trauma I faced.

The recently released film, “Short Term 12,” is a great illustration of this. In it, the counselors who were either in foster care, or traumatized themselves, used their experiences to relate to the children in their care. But this isn’t just some Hollywood movie fantasy or some far-fetched, idealized dream. My personal and professional experience prove that it’s possible.

I understand why many doctors and foster parents believe in the quick fix approach, but I urge them to take a bit more time to evaluate their clients needs. Because maybe, if more foster children are looked at as individuals, rather than trouble makers, there wouldn’t be such a high use of medication.

Furthermore, I urge formerly traumatized youth, to consider mentoring or fostering children. Because being understood is a fundamental human need, especially for children in foster care.

Michael Place is a former foster youth and graduate student at Antioch University-Los Angeles

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13 Comments

  1. So what can we do to change this? Can we change the system? It seems like a system is only as broken as the families and individuals in it.

    As a person from the inside, what is your recommendation on how to improve the way the government addresses the issue of broken and transitional families? How can we help kids from broken homes to learn to build a better future for themselves?

    • Hi Ulyana,

      I really don’t think it’s that difficult. What I am advocating for, is trauma informed care. Simply put, foster parents need to actually care for the well-being of the children in their care. A friend once told me, “foster care, is one of those things that people think they know about, but they really dont.” Going out, and sharing stories is key to showing people that if they are able, they have a responsibility to spread love. In the form of mentoring, fostering, or whatever they are able to provide.

      Also, there should be an abundance of former foster youth on staff in child care agencies. We know what to spot, and we have the skills and determination to make a difference.

      Lastly(for now), there needs to be more affective ways to identify the source of symptoms. Is it really, only that the kid is traumatized? Or does he REALLY have Bipolar? Is the situation so severe that the quick fix approach is warranted?

      Please feel free to reach out to me, so we can have a conversation and really change some lives.

      Michael.Place.FC@gmail.com

  2. You are speaking the truth of thousands of other foster youth who have been told there is something very wrong with them, when most of what they needed was unconditional love. It takes a lot of courage to put your raw story into the public eye, but I believe it is only through this that awareness will be brought to such an important topic. Keep sharing your truth, lots of foster youth need you to do that to help their cause!

  3. With your comment “What I needed was to be assured that I was loved. I needed to be taught that my behavior was just a reflection of the trauma I faced,” you hit the nail on the head. Perfect, and yet the vast majority of people tasked with dealing with children don’t understand this at all. My story is much like your own, and likely hundreds of thousands of others out there who came through the system. The system that was meant to protect us actually did more harm than good, and since “they” are the government, there is absolutely zero accountability. Please contact me, and I will try to contact you. Would love to have you on a podcast we do for survivors of child abuse.

  4. An excellent commentary on the importance of looking at root cause of disease (or lack of disease). I do think that medication is important for some people and in some situations, and can be a great tool or bridge for patients at times, but is also enormously over used and misunderstood, particularly in teenagers. It almost gives a free card to not have to look at deeper emotional or spiritual issues at hand and consider the possibility of there being a behavioral issue without true pathology. Very well written Michael.

  5. Michael- Thank you for sharing so deeply. Your strength and resiliencey continue to inspire me. I have no doubt that your willingness to share your insights, combined with your talent as a writer, social advocate, and compassionate soul will contribute significantly towards the healing of future generations of foster care youth. Thank you!

  6. This is an inspiring article that should be required reading for foster care workers, child welfare administrators, and child psychiatrists and other professionals who prescribe to children and youth in foster care.

  7. Michael: You are amazing. I was so fortunate to be given the opportunity to know you. Sharing your story makes it possible for more youth to be cared for in a much better way. What a fabulous gift you have. Many many blessings coming your way, and to all youth who need our love and support!

    EAS

  8. Michael,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are a truly amazing young man to have endured what you have and then be able to share in the hope of helping others.
    As a foster carer I will take on board all that you have said.
    We as carers need continued education and support to ensure that the children in our care get the very best of us as it is the least that any child deserves but particularly those kids who have experienced any form of trauma.

    Again – thank you

  9. My dear little brother, I am so proud of you. Hope by you sharing your story will help others.

    Love ya Kim ♥♥

  10. Michael Place – thank you for sharing your experience, voice and strength. My hope is that you will keep writing and include the strengths and talents that have carried through these times of trauma and instability. You are a gift and a shining advocate for social change and healing.

  11. Michael this is an amazing piece. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    Respectfully, Daniel H.

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