Foster Youth are Traumatized Enough: Why Psych Meds Should be Better Regulated

By Tisha Ortiz

This story was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change.

Tisha Ortiz, advocate for foster youth rights related to mental health. Photo by The National Center for Youth Law.

I had always been a good student, getting A’s and B’s, but everything changed in tenth grade when I failed English, one of my favorite classes. Although we were reading books I had read before and loved, like Brave New World, I couldn’t stay awake to participate in class discussions. In fact, I could barely keep my head up.

I was falling asleep in class because, like many youth in foster care, I had been put on powerful psychotropic drugs by the doctors in charge of my health care. In tenth grade I was on four different medications: two anti-psychotics, an anti-depressant and a mood stabilizer.

Having been in and out of foster care since I was four years old, I had gone through traumatic experiences in and out of the foster care system being physically, emotionally, sexually and verbally abused. I was exhibiting behaviors that doctors and others wanted to medicate me for, rather than help me deal with the trauma that caused them and teach me to cope without self-harm.

According to San Jose Mercury News’ Drugging Our Kids series, which I participated in, foster kids in California are 3.5 times more likely than other adolescents in the U.S. to be put on a psychotropic drug.

I survived the abuse and being inappropriately prescribed and today, I am a student at California State University, East Bay, and an advocate with the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), where I work to change practices around mental health treatment for foster youth.

While working with NCYL, I have advocated for various bills including two current bills: Senate Bill (SB) 1174 and 1291. SB 1174 is a prescriber-oversight bill that establishes a process for the Medical Board of California to review and investigate psychotropic medication prescription patterns among California children. SB 1291 would improve the availability of mental health services for children in foster care. SB 1174 has recently passed through the Assembly Health and Business and Professions committees and SB 1291 recently passed through Assembly Health committee; both are now on to Assembly Appropriations in August.

“SB 1174 and SB 1291 create additional safeguards for foster children who are given psychotropic medications beyond those the legislation created last year,” said Bill Grimm, senior attorney on the psychotropic medications team at NCYL, in an email exchange. “They fill in gaps in the checks and balances over the use of psychotropic drugs given to foster children that were not addressed during the last legislative session.”

The powerful and sedating psychotropic medications like the ones that I was on caused serious side effects like weight gain, tunnel vision and a zombified feeling. I also ended up developing an irregular heartbeat. I would often refuse to take the medication and end up being punished; once I had all my belongings stripped from me down to only the clothes I wore each day.

When I tried to talk to the doctor in the group home, he wouldn’t listen to my concerns and told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. The five-minute sessions that I had were all about upping, adding on medication, and not on what was going on with my mental health. As I tried to tell him I was having constant flashbacks from the traumas I went through, he called these flashbacks “hearing voices.” Instead of talking with me, his patient, the doctor would have a 30-minute session with the group home staff, who would give him their biased opinion on how I should be medicated.

What I actually needed were therapeutic behavioral services to help deal with my self-injurious behaviors as well as trauma-focused therapy for the abuse I had experienced as well as the loss of my mother.

A few months before aging out, nine years after the initial abuse, I was finally was set up with a therapeutic behavioral services coach, and one week before emancipation a trauma-focused therapist. I needed that support earlier and for longer. It came nine years too late.

I have gone to the capitol these last few years to advocate for foster youth mental health rights including legislation like SB 1174, and SB 1291, because foster youth need access to better mental health care than a “medication first” approach. They need not to be overmedicated and there should be oversight to make sure that children who enter foster care are not receiving too many medications, at too-high dosages and for too long. Legislation this year will help current foster youth by creating prescriber oversight that flags treatments with the greatest risks to children’s health in one bill and by tracking outcomes of mental health services in another.

At hearings on the topic of foster youth and mental health, experts sometimes refer to foster youth as “severely damaged.” For former foster children, comments like this are very hurtful. We are not severely damaged unless you count the lifelong serious side effects of the inappropriate medications we are often prescribed by doctors who also see us this way: that there is nothing else to be done to help us heal or recover from trauma, that our behavior needs to be managed and we need to be sedated.

I often acted out because adults wouldn’t listen when all I wanted was for someone to care about me and to love me as their own kid; I just wanted to receive a simple hug.

Multiple medications don’t heal a broken heart.

Tisha Ortiz is a 23 year old foster youth who is currently attending California State University, East Bay in Hayward pursuing a Criminal Justice Administration bachelor degree and plans to attend law school. Tisha is a former foster youth advocate through the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) and is on the Youth Advisory Board at National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) and a current participating member in California Youth Connection (CYC).