Dr. Phil and 100+ Organizations to Congress: Protect Kids from Overmedication

Washington – Dr. Phil McGraw, arguably, the world's leading mental health expert, television personality and outspoken children's rights activist, has cosigned a letter joining more than 100 organizations in urging U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to support a budget initiative aimed at reducing unwarranted overmedication of children in foster care. The First Focus Campaign for Children, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization, coordinated the letter in partnership with Voice for Adoption, a national organization advocating for children in foster care.

A 2011 federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis requested by a key Senate committee found that children in foster care are inappropriately prescribed psychotropic medications at a rate quadruple their peers. The same analysis found that children in foster care received larger and more frequent doses of these mind-altering drugs, including dosages exceeding the federal Food and Drug Administration's recommendations. A follow-up GAO audit released this month found that documentation supporting the prescription of psychotropic drugs to foster children was sometimes incomplete in critical areas: screening, assessment, and treatment planning; medication monitoring; and informed and shared decision making.

“When children have behavioral and mental health problems, they need a complete treatment plan, not just drugs that can obscure the underlying problems,” said Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children. “The more people hear about this problem, the quicker Congress will do something, so it’s great that Dr. Phil is playing a leadership role in protecting kids.”

Medication can be a part of a treatment plan, but only if appropriately prescribed, monitored and used in combination with evidence-based “psychosocial” therapy aimed at treating the underlying mental health condition. As the letter notes, advocates seek a comprehensive approach in which medications are administered to children only when necessary, and then only with effective monitoring and controls.

McGraw will testify Thursday before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Committee on Ways and Means, as the panel examines the use of psychotropic medications by children in foster care, state oversight, and opportunities for the federal government to help. McGraw, founder of The Dr. Phil Foundation, has drawn national attention to issues such as bullying and domestic violence, is a national spokesperson for court-appointed advocates for children affected by abuse or neglect.

“Prescription drugs can change and even save lives, but when it comes to these vulnerable children, these drugs are too often misused as ‘chemical straight jackets.’ This is a haphazard attempt to simply control and suppress undesirable behavior, rather than treat, nurture and develop these treasured young people,” said McGraw.

Inappropriately prescribed psychotropic drugs not only fail to address children’s real mental and behavioral health needs, but they often compound the challenges facing children in foster care. This can complicate efforts to help children reunify with birth parents or find permanent placement with relatives, an adoptive family or legal guardian.

“Medication alone cannot be the answer. Research is telling us that we are not only getting poor outcomes with our current practices, but that we are also spending millions of dollars on the wrong investments. Young people themselves are demanding better therapeutic practices to treat their underlying issues. Knowing what we know about the outcomes we are getting, it would be criminal not to take action to implement better policies and invest in better practices to treat the emotional health needs of these children,” said Nicole Dobbins, Executive Director, Voice for Adoption.

A proposal included in President Barack Obama’s federal fiscal year 2015 budget would allocate $750 million ($150 a year for five years) to improve federal and state efforts to curb overmedication of children in foster care. The demonstration effort pairs two federal agencies: the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). ACF would use $250 million to help states improve their capacity to oversee mental and behavior health care for children in foster care. States could use this funding to improve training, provide screening and assessment tools, evaluate care, and improve data collection. CMS would allocate $500 million as incentives to states that demonstrate reductions in inappropriate prescribing practices and over utilization of psychotropic medications, increased use of psychosocial treatments, and improved outcomes for foster children.

“This is exactly the right approach. Offer better alternatives and additional resources, but then reward states for what we all want – real improvements for kids,” said Lesley.

Although the 2011 GAO study prompted congressional hearings, the proposal’s future is uncertain. The president’s 2015 budget was declared “dead-on-arrival” by U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), and other senior Republicans on that committee.

The 117 organizations signing the letter included national groups, as well as more than 50 state and local advocates and child-serving agencies in 21 states, ranging from New Jersey to Arizona and Washington to Mississippi.

“This strong showing sends a clear message to Congress that there’s a nationwide movement to get beyond politics and push for action on this important problem,” said Lesley.

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The First Focus Campaign for Children is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization affiliated with First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization. The Campaign for Children advocates directly for legislative change in Congress to ensure children and families are the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. For more information, visit www.ffcampaignforchildren.org.

Voice for Adoption (VFA) develops and advocates for improved adoption policies. Recognized as a national leader in special needs adoption, VFA works closely with federal legislators, as well as other child welfare organizations, to make a difference in the lives of the 102,000 children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted and the families who adopt children from foster care. For more information visit: www.voice-for-adoption.org.

The Dr. Phil Foundation, founded in 2003, is a nonprofit charitable organization committed to supporting organizations and programs that address the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual needs of children and families. For more information, go to www.drphilfoundation.org.

Health Child Abuse & Neglect Press Release

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