Antipsychotic Drugs Used on Juveniles In Pennsylvania

Youthful offenders in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system are being managed by use of powerful antipsychotic medications, an independent news group reports.

The kids spend months in mostly private-run correctional facilities receiving mood-altering psychiatric medications “at strikingly high rates, particularly antipsychotic drugs that expose them to significant health risks,” wrote Halle Stockton of PublicSource.

The medications prescribed are approved to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and irritability with autism, according to the story, part of a series published by PublicSource..

Doctors and juvenile justice experts said they are confident the drugs are used off-label in the state facilities to induce sleep or to reduce anxiety or aggression, Stockton wrote. This is the practice even though kids are more vulnerable to severe side effects such as rapid weight gain and diabetes and potential debilitating effects on developing brains and bodies, the story noted.

Child advocates refer to the off-label use as a “chemical restraint.” Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University reviewed data provided by PublicSourse and commented, “The new findings will hopefully spur much-needed institutional reforms.”

Over a seven-year period enough antipsychotics were ordered to treat one-third of the confined youth, whereas only 1 to 2 percent of kids in the U.S. take antipsychotics, the story noted.

PublicSource analyzed data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Communication between the state agency and PublicSource was almost entirely through email.

The department had weeks, sometimes months, to respond to questions after being reviewed by the legal department. Department secretary Ted Dallas abruptly cancelled an interview with PublicSource, which shared its findings with the agency on Oct. 6.

The state would not release the names of the state-contracted doctors that care for and prescribe the antipsychotics to the youthful offenders.

Department spokeswoman Kait Gillis wrote in an email that 44 percent of residents in the facilities on Sept. 30 had a psychotropic medication prescribed by a psychiatrist.

“There aren’t that many kids in juvenile justice facilities who are psychotic,” said Dr. Terry Lee, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who treats residents of a Washington state-run secure juvenile facility. Most antipsychotics used in correctional facilities are given to control disruptive behavior, like outbursts, aggression and breaking the rules, he said.

– Salvador Solorio

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