- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - The Maine Department of Health and Human Services allowed six foster children and others across the state to be given psychotropic drugs without appropriate safeguards or oversight, according to advocates who filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf.

Child advocates contend in the lawsuit filed Wednesday that kids as young as 5 are being harmed by the powerful drugs and that the state failed to address a problem that it has previously acknowledged.

The state is accused maintaining inadequate medical records, falling short on informed consent and failing to flag prescriptions for secondary review.

“As a result of these failures, hundreds of preschoolers through teens in Maine’s foster care system remain at an unreasonable risk of serious harm with each passing day,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, was brought against Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Todd Landry, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services.

A Maine health department spokesperson accused New York-based Children’s Rights Inc., one of the parties that sued, of being more interested in filing lawsuits than in working with the state to help the plaintiffs.

“If Children’s Rights Inc. cared about the welfare of these six children or others, it would have reported these allegations to Maine DHHS through the appropriate established channels, allowing us to immediately investigate and take appropriate action if needed,” Jackie Farwell said.

Children’s Rights spokesperson Camilla Jenkins brushed off the criticism. “Legal action is a proven way to reform child welfare systems, when all other efforts have failed,” she said.

The plaintiffs are five boys and a girl from 7 to 17 years old who have resided in foster care in all corners of the state.

The lawsuit notes that children’s developing brains are at higher risk of harm from psychotropic drugs that are improperly prescribed and monitored. In many cases, kids are receiving multiple drugs at doses that are too high and at ages that are too young, the lawsuit said.

Psychotropic drugs include anxiety medications, antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and stimulants.

According to the lawsuit, the state has long acknowledged risks that accompany psychotropic medications in foster care populations. Oversight problems were identified at least 10 years ago, the lawsuit says.

In 2012, several Maine officials within the health department authored a report acknowledging that “there may be some overuse” of antipsychotic drugs, and a Maine health official shared a study showing foster children were prescribed mental health medications at a rate more than double that of other kids.

In 2018, Maine was singled out by U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General for its high utilization of psychotropic medications in foster care populations, the lawsuit said.

The data showed that 32.7% of Maine foster youths were prescribed a psychotropic medication in 2013, but that figure had dipped to 20.2% by the third quarter of 2020, in line with most states, Farwell said.

“Maine DHHS is committed to continuing to improve existing policies, staff training and child welfare records management by transitioning to a new information technology system,” she said.

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