The first day Ke'onte set foot in Carol and Scott Cook's home, two months before he was adopted by the Dallas couple in 2009, the boy had a stash of four or five types of pills to control his behavior.
"He was wiped out 15 minutes after we gave it to him," Carol Cook, a former Palm Beach County resident, recalled Thursday. "He was given medicine, some for bipolar, some for seizures. It pilled him up so he couldn't act out."
Ke'onte, a foster child since he was 6, had traveled from foster home to foster home and was prescribed all kinds of psychotropic drugs to keep him under control.
But the Cooks wanted Ke'onte to live a normal life, one without so many drugs in his system. Once they chose family therapy over drugs, Ke'onte was eventually weaned off every medication. He is now an athlete and honor student at his school.
On Thursday, Ke'onte, 12, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on federal services and financial management. Lawmakers were reviewing a Government Accountability Office study that indicates children in foster care in Florida and four other states in 2008 were prescribed psychotropic drugs at far higher rates than children not in state care.
"I'm not bipolar, I'm just naughty," Ke'onte said Thursday in discussing his early morning testimony.
The GAO study, which reviewed nearly 100,000 foster children in Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and Texas over a two-year period, also found that thousands of children on psychiatric medication often took higher doses than are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The report said that each state's programs to monitor the prescription of psychotropic drugs to foster kids "fell short of providing comprehensive oversight."
Ke'onte's story will be featured tonight on ABC's 20/20.
"Ultimately, it was horrible for (Ke'onte) to be on all those medications and not sure how he wants to react to everything," Carol Cook said. By testifying, "he's helping other kids to give them hope, too."
In Florida, where 22 percent of foster children 17 and younger take at least one psychotropic drug, according to the GAO study, Department of Children and Families officials say protocols for monitoring kids on psychiatric medications have improved in the past three years.
"Our tracking system is now on the Internet and internally, with the names of the children and reports that go out on a regular basis, every month, to the community-based care agencies," DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said.
Many of those improvements came after the 2009 death of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, a Broward County foster child who hanged himself in his foster parents' Margate home. Gabriel was under the influence of several psychiatric drugs.
After his death, all DCF child welfare employees received training on drugs that are administered to foster children and their possible side effects, Gillespie said. But there is no regular, ongoing training for child welfare employees hired after Gabriel's incident, she said. Training now varies from county to county.
As a result of the report, she said, DCF is working to implement a standardized statewide training program.
Former DCF Secretary George Sheldon, now acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, led a work group that investigated Gabriel's death. Since his move to Washington in May, he has asked HHS to make regulation of psychotropic drugs among foster children a priority nationwide.
"The death of that little boy made such an impression on me," Sheldon said Thursday.
Sheldon and other officials at HHS joined the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies in a three-month project to come up with ways in which states can improve their oversight of psychotropic drug prescriptions for foster children. HHS is planning webcasts, training sessions and a national summit to address the importance of managing psychiatric drugs among the foster care community. The GAO findings emphasize the urgent need for change, Sheldon said.
Ann Crawford, professor of psychology at Lynn University in Boca Raton, said the report hit on important issues but that more attention needs to be paid to the dangers of psychotropic medications meant for adults being overprescribed to children. It is crucial that child welfare agencies closely monitor the side effects these drugs have on foster children, she said.
"Sometimes these homes may have four, five, six children under foster care, and you can see what's happening. It looks like they are being contained, being controlled with drugs," she said.
Alternative methods, such as talk therapy and play therapy, should be considered when dealing with children, particularly those too young to verbalize whether a medication is having a negative effect, she said.
Crawford said that child welfare systems in Florida and elsewhere are overwhelmed with too many cases and too few caseworkers, and sometimes the most vulnerable children suffer.