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Shadi Houshyar's picture

Overmedication of America’s children is a real and growing problem. The rate at which powerful antipsychotic drugs are being administered to kids has increased by an alarming 500% over the last 15 years, and there is not enough research to understand all the physical and behavioral consequences for kids’ health.

What we do know is that children and youth in foster care – including a small number of infants – are much more likely to be administered psychotropic medications than other children who receive Medicaid, and state governments are not doing enough to ensure that kids are only medicated when and how it’s really necessary. These kids are often prescribed two, three, or even five medications at a time, despite the fact that there is little if any research on the effects of children taking multiple powerful, mind altering medications in combination.

But there is good news. A report issued recently by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office at the request of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has renewed media attention to this alarming problem. At a Capitol Hill hearing on December 1st, the Committee heard testimony from Ke'onte Cook, a former foster care child who had at one point been on multiple psychotropic medications at once and illustrated the problem through his compelling personal story. Adopted out of foster care nearly two years ago, his adoptive parents helped Ke’onte get the therapy he needed to make real progress. As he explained, therapy is more difficult, because it forces you to confront painful emotions and gives you the tools you need to face them in the future. In contrast, he said, medications simply mask the larger problem or emotions.

As I listened to Ke’onte, I thought about my own boys, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to contemplate putting them on psychotropic medications at such a young age. I know that I’d want to try therapy and every other avenue first, so powerful medications were a last resort and – hopefully – a temporary measure. As parents, and as citizens, we should demand no less consideration for children under the government’s care.

 First Focus has encouraged our leaders in Congress to move toward a more protective policy, starting with a few concrete steps:

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service should give states some guidance on what responsible administration and oversight of psychotropic medication looks like. Medications can be an important part of a treatment plan, but we need to ensure that they are a part of a carefully monitored plan of care and not intended as a “quick fix.”
  • Congress should require states to improve oversight. Children should only be medicated for a diagnosed mental or behavioral disorder, and even then only if the state has already made a good-faith effort to address the problem through therapy. When medication is appropriate, it should only be administered under close and frequent monitoring with medication adjustments as the child’s condition changes.
  • Congress should also invest in better science. We need to know more about how the new generation of antipsychotic drugs is affecting an entire generation of American kids. And we need to better understand how these powerful drugs affect kids in the real world, not just in clinical trials.

Kids in foster care have often experienced significant trauma, and they sometimes have real behavioral and mental health issues as a result. It is our responsibility to care for them, and that sometimes means prescription medications. But not always – only when it’s really necessary, and then only with the same care, caution, and careful oversight any parent would exercise for his or her own child.

First Focus will continue to educate policymakers and push for change on Capitol Hill. But there is an important role for parents to play, too. If you share our concern about the overmedication of children in foster care, let your representatives and senators know that solving this problem is important to you. And visit for updates on our work to ensure that children in foster care receive real solutions for real health problems.

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