Medicating Foster Youth

The San Jose Mercury News is running series of articles in a year-long investigative report titled, “Drugging Our Kids.” The series spotlights in gritty detail the way psychotropic drugs have become a primary tool for managing the behavior of children in foster care.

Part II is “D’Anthony’s Story,” the deeply sobering account of one boy’s heavily medicated journey through foster care. Over the course of his childhood, D’Anthony Dandy experienced 14 schools, 11 group homes, nine foster homes, three inpatient units and two stays in a shelter.

D'Anthony at age 12 -- photo from the San Jose Mercury News.
D’Anthony at age 12 — photo from the San Jose Mercury News.

He was described by some as “creative, caring, artistic, sweet, pleasant, helpful, talented and energetic.” Others concluded that he was “verbally abusive, aggressive, extremely defiant and threatening.”

From about age 10, D’Anthony received heavy doses of psychiatric drugs. They were essentially the system’s last-resort to manage his erratic moods and behaviors.

D’Anthony isn’t an exception in this. The investigation revealed that over 50 percent of kids in California group homes are authorized by the courts to receive these drugs.

“D’Anthony’s Story” is not a short read, but I’d recommend it to anyone desiring to grasp the turmoil and struggles imbedded deep in the foster system.

But the article should not be occasion to sniff at the social workers and others who serve in the foster system. This is no place for a “How could they?” indignation.

It is impossible to imagine that any government system, no matter how well-designed or executed, could be sufficiently compassionate, discerning, creative, flexible and persistent to redeem D’Anthony’s story.

The people who labor in these systems daily face dilemmas that all the kings horses simply can’t put back together again. These include generational cycles of abandonment, abuse and addiction.  They include countless precious children who carry immense potential yet also severe emotional and behavioral problems.

Every day, social workers trying to do the right thing for vulnerable children come crossroads at which not one of the options before them is truly good – yet still they must choose and act.

Would any of us deal with this intensity of need without sometimes resorting to “shortcuts” that — while not solving deep problems — at least help mitigate the worst of the symptoms?

If anything, “D’Anthony’s Story” highlights how incredibly tangled it all is: not just the flawed system, but each child’s painfully complex situation.

Legal reforms that constrain prescription may indeed be necessary. But to imagine them as “the big fix” would be to far underestimate the challenge.

Psychotropic medications are often a tragically incomplete way to treat symptoms quickly while ignoring root causes. But in a certain irony, new bureaucratic rules about such prescriptions would do much the same.

What youth in foster care need foremost is a consistent relationship with a caring adult.

As D’Anthony himself puts it, he “was just a kid, like a normal kid with a family, that needs help. I just need love — that’s the only thing.”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care deeply about excessive prescriptions of medication or the countless other flaws in the foster system that can be improved. Nor does it mean medications are not sometimes necessary.

But it does tell us that what foster youth most need can’t be prescribed with a quickly-squiggled signature. It can only be provided one caring relationship at a time, often at great sacrifice.

That is why the Church cannot outsource James 1:27 to government. What D’Anthony and so many other foster youth really need requires compassion, time, engagement, patience, and listening. In a word, love.

If you read the article, you’ll discover that D’Anthony has found that “one caring relationship” – or, at least, it found him. And because of that – although the road ahead will be difficult indeed – it is certainly not without hope.

Read “D’Anthony’s Story” and the full series “Drugging Our Kids” HERE.