Is Nevada overmedicating foster children?
You might call them the forgotten.
The most at-risk group of kids in our state.
They're Nevada's foster children--and as Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears uncovered, they're being given potentially dangerous and powerful drugs that they may not need... with taxpayers footing the bill.
2-year-old Sarah and her 10-year-old brother, Daniel, are finally home again.
Reunited with their mother, April, after a trying trip through the foster system that April says left Daniel damaged.
"My son's problem was behavior and most of it was due to him being in the system, moved from home to home."
The kids spent the most time in the foster home of Quincy and Elizabeth Mitchell.
"We finally got Daniel to a point to where he was starting to make some really, really good progress," Quincy says.
But that was only after they took Daniel off the multiple medications he was prescribed by a foster system doctor.
"Daniel was taking two different medications--one was to help him sleep at night, the other one was to get him going when he woke up in the morning," Quincy explains.
The drugs--Adderall and Clonidine--are mind-altering medications called psychotropics--drugs that affect the central nervous system and can be addictive.
Many carry serious side effects like diabetes, obesity, liver failure and could permanently alter brain development.
Doctors, foster parents and child advocates say the foster system is using drugs to make children easier to control without regard for side effects, potential dangers, or whether the drugs are medically necessary.
Daniel was put on drugs without his mother's consent, which is required by law.
"They did some kind of evaluation, said he was ADHD," April recalls. "I wasn't informed of any of this as it was happening."
She only found out when Quincy got concerned after he looked up the medications on the Internet.
"I just didn't really think that he needed this medication and his mother, April, said I don't want my son taking this," Quincy recalls.
"He was like a zombie, which is something that I think they wanted from him," April says.
It's a practice that's very costly to taxpayers.
"Up to $800 per month per single medication," says Child Psychiatrist Dr. Norton Roitman.
And many kids are on more than one drug.
In fact, Medicaid data shows taxpayers were charged $1.5 million in just the last fiscal year.
Dr. Roitman works extensively with foster children.
He says these risky medications must be prescribed and monitored with a level of care that often doesn't exist in our foster system.
"These are serious medicines. They shouldn't be used like you throw darts at a dartboard."
Quincy says he sees that first hand.
"It looks like they're handing this stuff out like it's candy."
He's hosting another foster child who also came to him on a psychotropic drug prescribed by a foster system doctor.
"So this medication I'm supposed to give him every morning--this is supposed to help to subdue him also."
Statistics from the State Department of Health and Human Services show there are nearly 4,700 children in Nevada's foster care system.
As many as one in three is on psychotropic drugs--often without the State getting legal consent.
"It's a huge problem!" says child advocate Donna Coleman. "They have to get permission, but they're not doing it!"
Coleman says the foster system is using psychotropic drugs to keep kids doped up so foster parents don't get fed up and refuse to care for them.
"The other thing that bothers me is that these children are not being regularly seen by a physician, they're not having regular blood draws to see what these medications are doing to them."
So with all these problems, what's being done to fix the system?
A law passed in 2009 demanded better policy from the child welfare system.
Clark County Child Protective Services tells us although that policy has been written, they're still working to hire and reallocate staff to implement it.
Additional legislation will be proposed in the 2011 session seeking more accountability and better oversight.
Advocates hope it will mirror California law, which brings juvenile court judges into the mix before foster kids can be put on psychotropic drugs.
The judges serve as checks and balances on case workers and doctors.
"Without enough well-trained case managers and therapists," Dr. Roitman says, "the solution seems to become medication."
On top of that, a federal lawsuit accuses Nevada's foster system of failing to monitor children's health and well being after the drugs have been administered.
One example cited from July 2009 tells the story of a young boy who suffered drug poisoning from the multiple psychotropic medications he was on, and spent several weeks in intensive care after his organs nearly failed.
"The accountability for diagnosis is not there," Roitman says.
Daniel's diagnosis changed when his doctors changed.
It was his foster parent who seems to have put him on the right path.
"Daniel didn't get on the honor roll until I took him off the medication," Quincy says.
"Do you think kids are falling through the cracks because of all the pitfalls in the system?" Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears asked Donna Coleman.
"I think kids are falling through the fingers."
The fingers of the very people who are obligated to protect them.
The federal lawsuit against our State and County child welfare officials was recently dismissed on some legal technicalities.
The National Center for Youth Law has re-crafted it and will be filing an appeal next week.
If you have any story ideas for Darcy, please email them at 13Investigates@KTNV.com or call 702-257-8440.