School-aged children in Pennsylvania who are in foster care use psychotropic drugs at almost three times the overall rate for youth in the state's Medicaid system, a study by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reveals.
According to the Associated Press, Medicaid information from 2007-2012 was used for the study, which found that 43% of foster kids ages 6 to 18 were being given medications compared to 16% of the state's youth population.
"The research confirms our concerns and shows an unacceptable use of these medications for children in foster care," Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said.
In addition, anti-psychotic drugs, which are a subset of psychotropic medications and are used for such disorders as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are being used at four times the rate as the general population of youth in Pennsylvania. One-half or more of the kids in the study had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but did not have a another diagnosis that would have required the use of anti-psychotics, say the researchers.
According to the study, the use of multiple classes of drugs in combination was four times as prevalent for foster children than all young people on Medicaid. Also, foster children on psychotropic drugs, in many cases, had not seen health providers for their behavioral issues.
Kids in the general population between the ages of 3 and 5 used psychotropic medications at a much lower rate than older children, but foster kids of these ages took the drugs at double the overall youth rate.
"While we know that many children benefit from medication, we also need to invest in proven alternatives, since too many children continue to be prescribed medications for non-approved indications," study co-author Kathleen Noonan said.
The study was presented by researchers at Children's PolicyLab, who have been observing and studying the use of psychotropic drugs in the foster care population for several years. The overuse of these drugs in low-income youth has become a national concern that has attracted the attention of both federal and state officials.
PolicyLab's codirector, David Rubin, and his fellow researchers have pushed for the growth of non-drug treatments to help kids with violent or aggressive behavior.
Still, there are doctors, writes the Philadelphia Inquirer's Stacey Burling, who continue to depend on medication alone. Because of PolicyLab's recommendations, the state has pledged to improve assessments, increase drug preauthorization requirements, create a by-telephone psychiatric consultation service, and improve training for those who care for foster children.
Research scientist Meredith Malone, who worked on the report, said antipsychotics can help improve problematic behaviors which often put a child's foster placement in jeopardy. But, add the authors of the study, drugs do not address the root causes of the behavior.
WPVI-TV, Philadelphia reports that many of the drugs given to foster children have serious side effects such as weight gain or increased risk for diabetes. The Department of Human Services has created an "electronic dashboard" which will monitor the use of anti-psychotics in children and adolescents.
Dallas tells KYW-TV, Philadelphia that kids in foster care probably have more mental health difficulties than other children based on the trauma they have experienced that got them into the system in the first place.
"To think that we're compounding that damage (of foster care placement) by inappropriately prescribing medication to these kids is deeply disturbing to me and is simply unacceptable," he said.