California Legislators Take Aim at Psychotropics in Foster Care

drugging our kids

A Bay Area News Group investigation revealed that children in California’s foster care system are prescribed unproven, risky medications at alarming rates, providing the impetus for legislative action.

Here’s how you can help.

psychotropics forever a problem

The problem has plagued foster care for longer than anyone would care to imagine.1 And, by all accounts, the problem has only grown worse over time.

Psychotropic Hearing Background Paper

In a background paper provided for a legislative Hearing held on February 24, 2015, Chairman Mike McGuire explained, “Over the last 15 years, prescribing rates of psychotropic medications for California’s foster youth have steadily increased, from less than 1 percent of foster youth receiving such medications in 2000, to nearly 15 percent of all foster youth today. When adjusted to account only for adolescent foster youth, prescribing rates rise to nearly 1 in 4 youth, and 56 percent of all youth residing in group homes were prescribed at least one psychotropic medication.”

Throughout the hearing, references were made to previous efforts at tackling the problem. Over the years, bills have been proposed, only to have been sidelined. One legislative proposal that did manage to pass – providing judges with oversight over the prescription of psychotropic meds to foster children – came back with mixed results.

This time around may be different. Bolstered by public sentiment following an explosive series of articles stemming from an investigation by the Bay Area News Group that revealed children in California’s foster care system are still being prescribed unproven, risky medications at alarming rates, legislators were moved to action.

a multi-pronged approach

Four specific pieces of legislation have been introduced in the California Senate to target the widespread problem of psychotropic meds in foster care. Any one of them alone would be a step in the right direction. If, by some miracle, all four were to reach the Governor’s desk, it would be a miracle that is long overdue for California’s foster children.

To be sure, the pharmaceutical industry is lobbying against their passage. Not the least among their concerns would be the potential for these bills to provide model legislation among the other states.

Here is a brief rundown on the four bills, as some changes have been made here and there along the way.

Sen MonningSenator Monning

SB 253, introduced by Senator Monning, with principal coauthor Assembly Member Chiu. This bill would require that, “Whenever the court authorizes the administration of a psychotropic medication, it shall ensure that the administration of the psychotropic medication is only one part of a comprehensive treatment plan for the child that shall include and specify the psychosocial services the child will receive in addition to any authorized medication.”

Sen Jim BeallSen Jim Beall

SB 484, introduced by Senator Beall, has as its principal coauthor Assembly Member Chiu, and coauthors Senators Mitchell and Monning, would “require the department, if it determines based on that information that a facility is administering psychotropic medications to children at a rate exceeding the average authorization for all group homes, to inspect that facility at least once a year to examine specified factors that contribute to the high utilization of psychotropic medications. The bill would require an inspected facility to submit to the department, within 60 days of that inspection, a corrective action plan including steps the facility shall take to reduce the utilization of psychotropic medications.”

Assemblyman ChiuAssemblyman Chiu co-sponsored three bills

SB 238, introduced by Senators Mitchell and Beall, with coauthor: Assembly Member Chiu, would require “updates to ensure, among other things, that the child and his or her caregiver and court-appointed special advocate, if any, have an opportunity to provide input on the medications being prescribed, and would require the updates to include a process for periodic oversight by the court of orders regarding the administration of psychotropic medications.”

SB 319, introduced by Senator Beall and coauthored by Senator Monning, “would require a county to provide the services of a foster care public health nurse to children in foster care by contracting with the community child health and disability prevention program established in that county.” That nurse would oversee the prescriptions of psychotropics to foster children.

One Previous bi-partisan success for foster kids

Sen Holly MitchellSen Holly Mitchell

Senator Holly Mitchell – coauthor of two of the above bills – authored a bill last year that may serve to improve the circumstances of many foster youths. For years, we have heard stories about children being placed into foster homes with violent criminal histories. On the other hand, these stories came out even as perfectly good foster parents – in some instances family members offering kinship care – were rejected based on outdated, incomplete, or erroneous background histories.

In August 2014, Governor Brown signed into law a bill, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), SB 1136 earned the unanimous support of the State Senate and the Assembly. That a bill managed to be drafted in a bi-partisan manner, and earn the unanimous support of both the Senate and the House is truly a remarkable achievement. In describing the Mitchell/Huff Bill, Sen Mitchell explains:

When a foster parent’s past record is investigated and determined not to be grounds for exclusion from providing foster care, the county workers tasked with placement receive no information about the nature of the crimes in order to determine an appropriate placement for a child. This puts some suitable foster parents at a disadvantage because of a past mistake, and can result in other cases where a child in placed inappropriately in an unsuitable foster home. SB 1136 earned the unanimous support of the State Senate and Assembly.

You see, it can be done, but each bill faces an uphill battle against those system “stakeholders” with vested interests to preserve.

I would encourage all advocacy organizations with an interest in the welfare of children to support these four measures, as these four bills may actually make a meaningful impact on the lives of many foster children. Please consider lending your support to this effort in any way that you can.


You are, of course, free to contact legislators by any means that you desire. But, there is an easy way.

The PsychDrugs Action Campaign, a project of the National Center for Youth Law, has sample letters and instructions online. If you would like the NCYL to deliver your letters of support for you, your letters must reach the NCYL’s e-mail in-boxes by April 5 in order to be submitted on time.

Consider visiting the PsychDrugs Action Campaign today to let your voice be heard.

1. By way of example, in June of 1987, Los Angeles Times staff writer Lois Timnick published an article, “Teens in Shelter ‘Like Zombies,’ Report Charges,” wherein she reported that, “Nearly one in three teen-agers at MacLaren Children Center, the county’s sole shelter for abused and neglected children, are given tranquilizers or other psychotropic drugs instead of counseling and are “walking around like zombies,” according to the author of a report that will be sent to the Board of Supervisors on Monday.” The 1991-92 San Diego County Grand Jury expressed similar concerns in The Crisis in Foster Care, extending its examination of the psychotropics in the foster care system in another direction. Among the Jury’s findings: “Caseworkers, investigators and attorneys believe that some foster parents routinely complain of behavioral problems, insist that those behavioral problems require mental health therapy and then seek additional funds for regular transportation to the therapist and special care needs.” On May 17, 1998, LA Times writer Tracy Weber reported that many children in Orange County, and across the state, “were given drugs in dosages or combinations that a number of prominent child psychiatrists found excessive and dangerous.” Weber also reported that, contrary to state law, “Orange County’s judges do not personally inspect and approve requests to drug children under their care.” Instead, the judges “relegated that responsibility to Department of Children and Family Services managers with no special training in the use of such drugs on children.” The 2004-2005 Los Angeles County Grand Jury reported that approximately 6,000 children and adolescents were taking daily psychotropic medications, including Celexa, Prozac, Luvox, Paxil, and Zoloft.

Lifting the Veil is an independent project, and is not affiliated with the National Center for Youth Law or the PsychDrugs Action Campaign.

Uppermost image attributed to Bay Area News Group.