The Denver Post’s Jennifer Brown and Christopher N. Osher are no strangers to Colorado’s child welfare system. In 2012, the two teamed up for “Failed to Death,” an investigative series on the preventable deaths of abused and neglected children.
While working on that series, they were tipped off to another disturbing trend: children in Colorado’s foster care system were 12 times more likely to receive psychotropic and antipsychotic drugs like Adderall, Risperdal and Zyprexa than other children on Medicaid.
The idea for the series, “Prescription Kids,” stemmed from Dr. Bruce Perry who studied the impact of child abuse on child development, said Osher. “The way [children] interact with the world and act looks like mental illness when really it’s more of a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder or something like that.”
Diego Conde, Tamisha Macklin and Anthony Herrera are prime examples. While in foster care, these youth showed signs of mental health issues. They were given powerful, mind-altering drugs that numbed their pain and cut off their feelings.
Conde, whose story introduced the six-part series, was thrust into foster care at 12 when his mother died. All he had left of his former life was his dog, who died three months later. That was when he fell into a rage, and turned to drugs and alcohol. At 13, after an intentional overdose he was prescribed Risperdal and Prozac by the state.
“He just had an incredible story and was very willing to share almost everything I could ever ask him,” says Brown. “It was a good reminder that sometimes, especially when you’re writing about children or in this case, teenagers, it was particularly helpful to meet them again. You meet someone, you sit down with them for an hour or two, interview them and write down their whole story in your notebook and most of the time you would call that done. But if you have a couple of months to work on something, even if you think you’ve gotten someone’s whole story, if you [get] together to chat, not to interview, but just to talk, people just get more comfortable and tell their stories in a more detailed way.”
One fourth of Colorado’s 16,800 foster children are on psychotropic drugs, according to a University of Colorado analysis.
Abilify, Concerta and Risperdal, powerful drugs that alter brain functions like mood and behavior, are among the top five psychotropics administered to children on Medicaid. The FDA approved Risperdal as a “blockbuster drug” to treat schizophrenia in adults. Johnson & Johnson marketed it to primary care physicians and child psychiatrists, downplaying risks that showed that the drug had caused breast growth in boys. The drug generated over $4.5 billion in sales, according to financial reports from 2008.
“There were times when I would run over to Jennifer’s desk and say ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing in these court documents’,” says Osher. “It was amazing dealing with high company executive emails just blatantly going against what the law is and taking steps to market drugs inappropriately.”
Tracking down public records was extremely time-consuming and required eight to ten rounds of requests and interviews citing parts of the open records law in Colorado. Finding the key statistic of the story – that foster children were 12 times more likely to be prescribed these drugs than other children on Medicaid – was particularly difficult, Brown says.
“I think that it would be helpful to other journalists to know that it took us a ridiculous amount of time to get the state of Colorado to release the data,” she explains. “We were really concerned that we weren’t going to get this public data for months. My point is to keep pushing,” she advises.
The series, published in April 2014, caught the attention of legislators, who have known that psychotropic drug use has soared for foster children since at least 2007. The state created a panel to address the issue last year.
“Prescription Kids” includes charts and graphs on psychotropic drug use among Colorado’s foster children and links to the information the journalists gained access to using open record laws, weaving together a compelling story that focuses both on the pharmaceutical companies that push these drugs and the children affected by them.
Read the series here.
Photo by Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post