FCYU119 cover image See all stories from issue #119, Winter 2015

Medicated Against My Will

On June 6, 2008, I became a foster child. I was 11 years old.

At the beginning of that day I did not know what foster care was, but I knew something was wrong. The day before, my mother didn’t allow my sister and me to attend school and she had us stay the night at her boyfriend’s house. When I awoke she wasn’t there.

youthcomm logo

When she came back, much later that day, I could tell she’d been crying because her usually bright eyes were worn and red. She told me and my little sister, who was 6, that she’d been at court. Shortly after, a van took us to the Children’s Services building. Three days later we were placed with strangers who didn’t even know our names. This was our new home.

I was torn away from my mother, with my little sister by my side. As the older child, I’d always tried to protect my sister. Now I felt that responsibility even more. I also wanted to make her feel better. But it was difficult trying to cheer my sister up when I was so sad, lonely, and confused myself.

Naturally, I cried. I wasn’t going to be filled with joy. My feelings were being ignored, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking with my foster mother because I had no clue who she was. I had a mother already and I didn’t want another one.

There were a lot of people in this new home: my foster mother, my foster mother’s three grown daughters and two grandchildren, her elderly father, two other foster children, and my sister and me. I shared a medium-sized room with my sister and the two other foster children. There were two bunk beds and a dresser that we all shared.

I spent a lot of time in the room. I read most of the time and didn’t interact much with the other children besides my sister. I didn’t find much in common with the other foster children or my foster mother’s grandchildren. Besides reading, I drew a lot of pictures. I drew human hands a lot: I felt like they represented something but I didn’t know what.

To the Doctor

About a month after I went into care, my foster mother woke up my sister and me one morning and we traveled to Brooklyn. When I asked her where we were going she said, “to the doctor.” The doctor had a scruffy gray beard and thin oval glasses and a dull tie. His office was small, but the wide windows overlooked the city and made him seem powerful and wise. No one ever told me he was a psychiatrist. I figured that out myself later on.

He explained to me that I could tell him anything because he could help me. But I saw a prescription pad on his desk, and I knew he could decide my fate. One of the girls in the ACS building had told me, “Yo girl, be careful. Because when you go into care, doctors put you on meds for no reason.”

On my visits to the psychiatrist I didn’t volunteer anything; I just answered his questions. He usually asked me the same questions every session.

“Do you know what day it is today?”


“Do you know what year it is?”


I don’t know why he always asked me the date and year. It wasn’t like I was forgetting things. He scribbled in a little notebook; I wondered what he was writing. I didn’t trust him because I didn’t know him. He was just another person being added to my life story. I was tired of all these strangers piling up in my life, and I wanted them all to just go away.

Once, I actually did open up to him. I told him that my foster mother was only feeding us two meals a day—breakfast and dinner. After that session, my foster mother seemed pissed off. She took my sister and me to Dunkin Donuts and fed us a lot that day. After that, she went back to two meals. I didn’t tell him anything else because he didn’t make anything better.

My foster mother took my sister and me to visit our psychiatrist once a month, and usually he spoke to all three of us together. But on the third visit, he did something different. He spoke to my foster mother one on one, leaving me and my little sister in the waiting room. Soon he began doing this consistently. On the sixth visit like this, he called me in alone.

‘I’m Trying to Help You’

There were three chairs in front of my psychiatrist’s desk. My foster mother usually sat in the first one, my little sister in the middle, and I in the last one. Despite the fact that my little sister was in the waiting room, I chose my usual seat anyway, apart from my foster mom. The doctor said, “I have decided that it would be best if you were put on medication.”

“Why do I need to take medication?” I asked, suddenly alert.

“I think it will help you control your suicidal thoughts and restrain you from harming yourself.”

“But I’m not going to harm myself because—”

“It’s OK,” he cut me off. “You don’t need to talk about it. I’m trying to help you.”

Just Sad and Upset

image by YC-Art Dept

I wanted to explain to him that I wasn’t going to harm myself because I knew better. I wasn’t suicidal. And I knew I didn’t want meds. My little sister used to throw tantrums and was put on medication, which only made her more energetic and her tantrums worse. My sister didn’t deserve to be put on medication. She was just misbehaving.

I wanted to hold my tears back but one trickled down my face. Neither my foster mother nor my psychiatrist noticed. Nobody explained anything to me. The only sound I heard was the sound of his pen writing my prescription, and that was worse than words.

I assumed they had gotten the idea that I needed medication because I stayed in my room a lot and didn’t socialize with the other foster kids. I wasn’t crazy; I simply yearned to hear my mother’s voice, even if she was scolding me for not doing my homework. I was just sad and upset.

I took the first pill that evening. I assumed it would make me really energetic like it did to my little sister. But my medication had a different effect. About an hour after taking the pill, I couldn’t move. It was as if I was being held down by some invisible force field. I could clearly hear my foster mother having a conversation on the phone. She didn’t hear me calling her name for help.

But I wasn’t even sure if I was yelling for help out loud. Was I just whispering or was it only in my head? I felt helpless and weak. I sat on the hot leather couch and I couldn’t move. I could hear myself thinking and I could understand that I was trying to stand up but my body wouldn’t move. I could feel myself falling asleep. That feeling lasted for about half an hour. When I was able to move, I was still weak and tired.

My psychiatrist had told me little about my medication. He didn’t tell me there were side effects. Besides the paralyzing tiredness, I also hated the idea of being on medication. I felt ashamed and didn’t tell anyone besides my best friends, who I knew wouldn’t judge me. I already had to carry around the burden of being labeled as a foster child. Now I was a foster child who was on medication.

Why This Powerful Drug?

I researched the drug I was put on, Risperdal, and discovered that it’s an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia and other illnesses. Psychiatrists prescribe it more to children in foster care than other children, and there’s a big debate now about whether that’s right. I only had tiredness and dizziness, but I later read that some people get dry mouth, vomiting, anxiety, and aggression, and that some of the side effects continue after you stop taking the medication.

I continued taking Risperdal twice a day for about two years and I experienced tiredness every time I took it. I didn’t like taking the medication, but it didn’t seem like I had a choice.

In addition to the psychiatrist, I had a therapist who was friendly and helpful. I first met with her shortly after I came into care and I saw her once a week. Our sessions were calm and peaceful. We talked about my feelings but also school, books, art, and other subjects. I told her my feelings about being on medication, and she tried to talk to my psychiatrist. But she said he told her that he was the doctor and he knew what was best for me.

I went a year without seeing my family. I had seen my mother on one visit and when I didn’t see her again I started to believe that she didn’t want to see me anymore. I worried that I had done something wrong. A few months later, I learned that my mom was in prison. I was happy to finally visit her, but unhappy about where.

I spent about three years in the same foster home. I wanted to move the whole time because I was unhappy there. I had too many chores, I couldn’t go over to my friends’ houses, and at family barbeques and parties I felt like an outsider.

Back to Normal

Toward the end of those three years, some relatives came forward and offered to take in my sister and me. I ended up with my aunt, and actually got my own room. It felt really good to have my own space and not share almost everything with other foster girls. I also switched psychiatrists.

When I first visited the new psychiatrist, my aunt explained to me that he recommended medications for children. I was expecting him to be like my last psychiatrist. But my new psychiatrist was completely different. He was friendly and welcoming and asked me questions that didn’t involve the date and year. He asked me what my favorite food was. He seemed to care about how I felt and he didn’t interrupt me when I spoke.

As with my last psychiatrist, I visited him once a month and he spoke to my aunt alone as well. After about three or four visits, he called my aunt and me in the room together and said that he didn’t understand why I was on medication in the first place.

“It’s supposed to control my so-called suicidal thoughts and restrain me from harming myself. I don’t think I need this medication. All it does is make me tired,” I answered.

My aunt and I waited in awkward silence as he tapped his pen onto his desk. Finally he spoke. “I agree with you and I do not believe you need this medication either.”

He made a plan to wean me slowly off the drug. I felt so relieved. I took smaller and smaller doses and after about two or three months I got to stop completely.

Since I came to live with family and got off the medication, everyone around me has said they see a change—my family, friends, workers, and therapist. I see it too. My little sister recently moved in with my aunt and me also. I have made more friends, I am more comfortable socializing, and I am way more outgoing and accomplished than I was before. The medication stopped me from doing many of these things because it took away my energy.

I don’t think I ever needed medication in the first place. What I needed was someone to talk to about how I was coping as soon as I entered the system. My therapist was permanent, but she wasn’t there as often as I needed her, especially at first. Kids first coming into care need more attention. My caseworkers were often changing, and I was uncomfortable talking with my foster mother.

Sadly, I’m not the only foster child to be unnecessarily medicated. A 2011 government study found that 21 to 39% of foster youth were prescribed psychotropic medication compared with 5 to 10% of youth not in care. A Rutgers study based on 2009 data found that 12 to 13% of foster youth take very powerful antipsychotics like Risperdal, Abilify, and Seroquel, compared to 2% of children on Medicaid and 1% of children with private insurance.

There are many changes that need to happen in the foster care system. One that I’d like to see is proper evaluation of children before they are labeled and put on medication. I’m sure this would reduce the number of foster children taking drugs they don’t need.

Drug Money

Foster children are medicated much more than other children. Could this be because many doctors get money and gifts to promote the very drugs they prescribe—and drug companies know that Medicaid will pay for the drugs without asking questions?

Journalists and researchers in California found that drug companies spent more than $14 million from 2010 to 2013 to influence California doctors who prescribe to foster children. That’s more than twice what they gave to other doctors in the state. The drug companies spent the money on gifts, meals, travel, speaking and industry-sponsored research for the foster care doctors. See bit.ly/druggingkids for the story.

horizontal rule