Medicating Trauma

Treating the symptoms of traumatized foster children without addressing the real issues.

Liz Young June 02, 2014
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Colorado’s foster care system has been in the news recently with concerns regarding the high number of foster kids prescribed psychotropic medications. These medications include antipsychotics, ADHD medications, mood stabilizers, and others.

The Denver Post reported on a study done by the University of Colorado on the use of psychotropic medication in foster youth, which showed that over 25% of children in Colorado foster care were prescribed psychotropic medication in 2012.

While the state officials are working to ensure that children in foster care are not unnecessarily medicated, this issue cannot be solved by policy alone.

“The less a child has a powerful, invested adult advocate, the higher the probability that people will just use interventions that are meant to marginalize or basically zombie-fy kids,” Dr. Bruce Perry told The Denver Post. “They are just sedating them and trying to control their behavior.” Dr. Perry is the founder of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, whose goal is to “help improve the lives of traumatized and maltreated children  by improving the systems that … protect and enrich these children.”

This issue is widespread throughout the U.S. in foster care. A report released by the American Bar Association in 2011 stated that “[s]tatistics on the presence of psychiatric diagnoses in children in foster care vary from a low of 29% to a high of 96%.”

Of my three foster children, two of them carry a psychiatric diagnosis. One of my children carries two diagnoses, and the other just recently was reduced to one diagnosis. Out of their five biological siblings, all in the foster care system, at least three of them carry a psychiatric diagnosis and are prescribed with psychotropic medications, all under the age 11.

Throughout my 14 months as a foster parent, it has become clear that the first measure taken in treating these traumatized children is to slap a diagnosis on them and medicate accordingly.

Recently, a serious behavioral issue arose with one of our children, and the initial response of the foster care team was to request that he visit the psychiatrist’s office immediately, a place he already goes monthly. The behavior was clearly an outworking of the trauma our son has experienced, one that takes time to unlearn, but regardless, medication was suggested to “fix” the issue.

At the doctor’s office, our son saw a state-employed psychiatrist he’d never seen before, who wrote a prescription for yet another psychotropic medication.

The issue here is, as Dr. Perry stated, that without an invested adult, these children will go through their childhood and adolescence being medicated beyond recognition just so they are easy to handle. What this doesn’t take into consideration is that their life circumstances have not been easy to handle, and they need to work through that. But how can they work through that without a safe place or person to help them?

Foster parents need to become educated on their rights and the rights of their children, so they can advocate for the needs of the children. Counseling services, Individualized Education Plans, special training, and more can be provided by the state to help foster children process the trauma they’ve experienced.

Medication can aid in the stabilizing of children when they legitimately need it, but mis- or over-diagnosis and prescription of medication can turn children into numb, emotionless robots who are unable to experience life.

Foster children need people willing to invest the time that these kids need to heal. It will be messy and difficult, but that’s the only way foster children will have a fighting chance.

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Liz Young

Liz and her husband are foster parents in Illinois. They adopted their three boys through foster care. Liz shares personal experiences from her crazy journey of foster parenting at The Crazy House


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