by Michael Place
I recently came across an article written in 2011, by Huffington Post blogger Kaitlin Burnett entitled: “Medicating Foster Kids: Not the Travesty It Seems?”
A provocative title, that did its job and reeled me in. Burnett explains that she understands why medication was proposed for one of the former foster youth she interviewed, stating that his actions (which included beating up other children and suicide attempts) may have justified the use of psychotropic medications on him.
While I do not doubt the severity of this single experience, it is important to grasp that this young man’s story is only one of many. And because medication may have been needed for him, doesn’t mean it’s needed for all “misbehaved” children in care. For children in foster care, medication is sometimes used as a quick fix approach that ultimately overshadows their real problems.
I was one of these children.
Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician and faculty member of the Perelman School of Medicine, recently wrote: “Left with limited options, even the best clinician would agree that the choice of an anti-psychotic for an ‘out of control’ child may be the lesser of evil than letting a family continue to spin out of control.”
But what constitutes being “out of control?”
I ended up in foster care due to my mother’s addiction to heroin. Her addiction was even more prevalent during my pregnancy. Apparently, it served as a calming agent, for when I would kick her, from the insides of her belly.
While in care, I moved about 11 times in a matter of nine years, which only destabilized me further. I was placed in the home of strangers and got my first dose of what it really meant to be in foster care when my first foster family told me I had to move, because they were going to Puerto Rico.
Why couldn’t I go? Wasn’t I a part of the family?
The following nine years in care would only further prove that since I wasn’t their birth child, many foster parents and group home staff members only saw me as a part of their income. Living with family didn’t make much of a difference, either, as my aunt who was married into the family, didn’t want me around at all. It was to the point where she would cause havoc and make it appear as though, I was the culprit. She knew, that as soon as my uncle got home from work, he and all of his six-foot glory, would land a few slaps on my fragile, four-foot frame.
So lets take a moment to digest. At nine, I was taken away from my mother, because her addiction seemed to be more important than my well-being. And the people who were supposed to make it all better, only saw me as a means to their vacations.
How would that make you feel? Worthless, maybe? Do you imagine that you’d do random attention-grabbing acts, just so someone would show you that they really care?
That is exactly what I did. I threw temper tantrums, I wrapped cords around my neck and pretended to pull as hard as I could. I threatened people and did everything my premature mind could conjure up. This was my way of dealing with trauma.
Was I Bipolar? No. But that’s the label doctors gave me, and that led to a plethora of medications that caused my natively thin frame to balloon, faster than I can vividly remember.
Even at my worst moments, I never touched or caused harm to anyone other than myself. Even the self-inflicted harm was physically harmless. I never cut myself, bled or popped any massive amount of pills (other than what was prescribed).
So, was the massive weight gain and heavy sedation, really worth it? Not at all.
What I needed was to be assured that I was loved. I needed to be taught that my behavior was just a reflection of the trauma I faced.
The recently released film, “Short Term 12,” is a great illustration of this. In it, the counselors who were either in foster care, or traumatized themselves, used their experiences to relate to the children in their care. But this isn’t just some Hollywood movie fantasy or some far-fetched, idealized dream. My personal and professional experience prove that it’s possible.
I understand why many doctors and foster parents believe in the quick fix approach, but I urge them to take a bit more time to evaluate their clients needs. Because maybe, if more foster children are looked at as individuals, rather than trouble makers, there wouldn’t be such a high use of medication.
Furthermore, I urge formerly traumatized youth, to consider mentoring or fostering children. Because being understood is a fundamental human need, especially for children in foster care.
Michael Place is a former foster youth and graduate student at Antioch University-Los Angeles