Child advocates filed a federal lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Social Services on Monday over allegations of inappropriately providing psychotropic drugs to foster care children and systemic lack of oversight of the medications.
Attorneys for Children's Rights, the National Center for Youth Law and Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics say the lawsuit is the first of its kind nationwide that focuses only on psychotropic drugs given to foster children.
The state attorney general's office didn't immediately comment Monday on the lawsuit.
The organizations filed the lawsuit on behalf of several Missouri children currently or formerly in foster care, including a 14-year-old boy who has been prescribed as many as seven psychotropic drugs at one time. Attorneys for the children are asking a federal district judge to grant the lawsuit class-action status and order Missouri to implement systemic changes aimed at curtailing potential overprescribing of the drugs.
The lawsuit claims psychotropic drugs are often prescribed as "chemical straight-jackets" for foster care children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or conduct disorder even though there are few to no Food and Drug Administration-approved uses for the drugs among children. The plaintiffs' attorneys say there's little research on how the drugs impact children's brains, and that possible side effects include disorders that cause twitching, Type 2 diabetes, psychosis and suicidal thoughts.
"The bottom line is young kids — still developing bodies and brains — are exposed to powerful psychotropic medications in what is in almost in all circumstances off-label prescriptions," Sara Bartosz, deputy director of litigation strategy at Children's Rights, told The Associated Press in an interview late last month.
The lawsuit alleges that there's not enough state oversight of psychotropic medications and that the state keeps shoddy medical records for children in foster care, making it difficult for foster parents to properly administer medications.
The suit calls for the judge to order the state to keep better records, develop a stronger informed-consent policy and implement a system to flag potential overprescribing of psychotropic drugs.
According to court records, one former foster parent said she received a brown grocery bag full of medications in November 2015 when she first picked up the 14-year-old boy. She said she didn't get information on his medical history or directions for how to give him the medications.
The woman said after giving the teenager his medications one night, he told her it felt like he had knives in his eyes and that he was scared to sleep. She said he also twitched, which she thought might be a side effect of his medications. He later was prescribed a drug used to treat tics caused by Parkinson's disease, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says in January the teen was taking seven psychotropic medications at the same time, including three antipsychotics.
The former foster parent, who stopped serving in that role after the teen threatened her life but still kept in contact with him, said she visited him after he moved to a different state facility in April and that he was "an entirely changed child."
She said he was "lethargic, slurring his speech, and falling asleep in broad daylight." According to court records, the teen told the former foster parent he had been hearing voices that told him to kill himself.
Others who the lawsuit was filed on behalf of include sisters, ages 2 and 3, who were prescribed the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, which the lawsuit says is not FDA-approved for children younger than age 5.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.