The kids, nearly all black or white teenage boys, are sent hours away from their families to Pennsylvania youth correctional facilities, sterile lock-downs surrounded by barbed wire or cabins so far in the wilderness they're considered secure even without a fence. They are the toughest kids in the juvenile justice system, and, in some ways, the most vulnerable, reports PublicSource, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In the months they spend at correctional facilities, they receive mood-altering psychiatric medications at strikingly high rates, particularly antipsychotic drugs that expose them to significant health risks.
Kids are more vulnerable to the severe side effects of antipsychotics, including rapid weight gain and diabetes, yet doctors and juvenile justice experts say they're confident the drugs are being used off-label in the state facilities to induce sleep or to reduce anxiety or aggression. Some child advocates refer to this use as “chemical restraint.” Over a seven-year period, enough antipsychotics were ordered to treat one-third of the confined youth, on average, at any given time, according to a PublicSource analysis of drug purchasing information obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Only 1 to 2 percent of kids in the U.S. take antipsychotics. “Most of antipsychotic use is likely for sedation and behavioral control” in Pennsylvania's youth correctional facilities, said Dr. Mark Olfson of the Columbia University Medical Center. He is a leading research psychiatrist who reviewed the data PublicSource provided. “The new findings will hopefully spur much-needed institutional reforms.”