Five Years After Boy's Suicide, Findings Could Resurface
The suicide of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers in foster care shocked the child-welfare system in 2009. It led to a series of recommendations about Florida's use of psychotropic medications on foster kids and how to protect already-traumatized children from sexual abuse by other abused children.
But nearly five years after Gabriel hung himself in the shower of his foster home in Margate, the findings that followed his death are mostly unfulfilled.
Children's advocates haven't given up, though, and will try to move several measures forward during the 2014 legislative session.
In 2008, when he was 6 years old, Gabriel was found in a car with his mother, who was passed out with drugs at her side, authorities said. He was placed in foster care. Documentation in his case files showed that, while living in Ohio before moving to Florida, he had been sexually abused by an older child and shown pornography by an adult relative. Gabriel exhibited sexual behavior problems at school and had lost one foster placement due to his troubling behavior.
"One of the major things we learned was that the reason he was so disturbed was that he had been sexually abused himself," said attorney Howard Talenfeld, president of the advocacy group Florida's Children First. "As a victim of sexual abuse, he was acting out. This was a significant part of his problem that went unaddressed."
Gabriel was also taking two psychotropic medications when he died, and a Department of Children and Families investigation found that neither his parents nor a judge had approved them, nor was the medication he took reflected in his case files.
Then-DCF Secretary George Sheldon appointed two work groups in 2009 and 2010 to study and make recommendations about the use of psychotropic medications on foster children and about child-on-child sexual abuse.
One of the groups learned that in 2009, about 5 percent of all U.S. children were treated with psychotropic medications, but in Florida's foster care system, 15.2 percent of children received at least one such medication. Of these, more than 16 percent were being medicated without the consent of a parent, guardian or judge.
Five years out, the verdict is that more progress has been made on the psychotropic medication issue than on the issue of child-on-child sexual abuse.
"I think we're a lot better. I think we're a lot better than most states," said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, who served on the workgroup on psychotropic medications. "But I think more can be done on alternatives (to medication) and on really making sure that parents give informed consent and that courts have a true understanding of what it means."