More than a year after a landmark San Jose Mercury News investigation exposed the impact of the over-prescription of mind-altering drugs given to foster youth, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a package of bills into law that would place limits on those practices.
The slate of bills hopes to address a growing issue that has also received scrutiny at the national level.
In California, San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá found that one out of every four adolescents in the foster care system are prescribed psychotropic medications— at a rate three times that of all adolescents across the nation. And nearly half of the foster youth who receive these powerful drugs are prescribed two or more in the same year, according to the Center for Health Care Strategies. Used to treat conditions like anxiety, ADHD, psychosis and other serious mental health issues, psychotropic drugs come with a host of complications, including weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol, lethargy and tremors.
California Senate Bill (SB) 238 (Sens. Holly Mitchell and Jim Beall) requires the state to provide better information about the number of children who are prescribed psychotropic medications and the medications they are receiving, allowing social workers to better monitor potentially harmful interactions.
“Media exposés put the state on notice,” said Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). “Gov. Brown has now put the tools in our hands to ensure that foster kids in our care are not over-drugged for profit or convenience by those we pay to nurture and protect them.”
SB 319 (Beall) creates a system that will allow public health nurses opportunities to monitor the medication of California foster youth, providing more oversight to prevent the over-prescription of psychotropic drugs. With the new law, public health nurses will now be able to access medication records of foster youth through medical providers and social workers.
Under SB 484 (Beall), group homes will be tasked with new reporting requirements designed to detect the overprescription of psychotropic medications. The Department of Social Services, the Department of Health Care, and other parties will be charged with creating a system that will identify group homes that have unusually high levels of psychotropic drug medication.
A fourth bill, SB 253 (Sen. Bill Monning), was pulled last month in the face of mounting opposition from organizations representing psychiatrists and group homes. The bill would have bolstered the power of the courts to oversee prescription of psychotropic medications, including the potential requirement of additional medical examinations before prescribing powerful medications.
Beall, the author of two of the new laws, says that the effort to control the prescription of psychotropic medications shows that California is moving to respond to a pressing issue that affects many foster youth in the state.
“I hope the approval of this legislation tells our foster care youth that we love them, that their lives matter to all of us, and that we care deeply about their future,’’ Beall said in a press release. “The system is not perfect but California will keep working to perfect it.’’
Much of the momentum behind the bills was spawned by journalist de Sá’s award-winning “Drugging Our Kids” series. In the five-part effort, de Sá dug into state administrative data from the California Department of Health Care Services and the Department of Social Services to find an increasing reliance on psychotropic drugs to deal with behavioral issues, despite little evidence about the effect of the medication on developing brains.
However, in a recent story last month, de Sá wrote that the failure of SB 253 and changes to the other bills had “undermined progress” on a comprehensive legislative response to the overmedication of foster youth on psychotropic drugs.
Monning will re-introduce another version of his bill next year, suggesting that a legislative push to correct the issue may not be finished yet.