2015 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom winner

Drugging our Kids


Karen de Sá, Dai Sugano, Paul Baca, Qin Chen

Bay Area News Group
San Jose Mercury News

Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

This five-part series combined exclusive data analysis, powerful narratives, interactive and animated online graphics, poignant photos and a striking 40-minute documentary video to explain how foster care providers came to rely on a risky but convenient remedy to control the behavior of thousands of troubled kids: numbing them with psychotropic drugs that are untested on and often not approved for children.

The series also revealed:
  • The high cost to California taxpayers, as the state spent more than $225 million on these drugs for foster kids in a decade, more than on any other type of drug.
  • Pharmaceutical companies spent millions of dollars to woo the doctors who prescribed their profitable psych drugs to California’s foster children. The average foster care prescriber received almost four times more than the typical California doctor. And the newspaper’s analysis found the doctors who prescribed the most typically were rewarded the most.
  • One doctor’s bold experiment to dramatically reduce the drug-first treatment approach at an Oakland group home. His patients’ startling transformations showed how medication only muted the children’s trauma when the most important thing was to help them overcome it.
  • Ultimately, the series unraveled the complexities and secrecy of the country’s largest foster care system to explain how it grew dependent on quick-fix, taxpayer-funded, big-profit pharmaceuticals — and how the state has done little to stop it.

What made the newspaper’s examination so distinct was its relentless pursuit and analysis of original data, and the time and intense dedication that de Sá and Sugano committed to developing the trust of dozens of young people in able to thoroughly explore how their traumatic upbringings illustrated a system’s unconscionable failures. From Los Angeles to Humboldt County, de Sá and Sugano interviewed more than 175 people, including three dozen current and former foster youth. One after the other gave disturbing accounts of suffering from the drugs’ dramatic side effects. Some doubled their body weight, developed diabetes and dozed through much of their young lives while sedated by powerful antipsychotic drugs.

Their stories of anguish and upheaval, childhoods lost and remarkable resilience are brought together in an ambitious documentary by the Emmy award-winning Sugano. The video, Part 5 in the series, extended the message of “Drugging Our Kids” to an entirely new audience well beyond the traditional reach of newspaper and continues to build interest. A wide range of groups, including the National Center for Youth Law and the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley, are hosting a growing list of screenings of the video.

Reaction to the project has been swift, both in policy circles and in the medical community. State Sen. President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called for lawmakers to turn off the wide-open spigot funding the drugs. A package of bills to curb the excessive use of medications in foster care is now being introduced before the California State Legislature, with authors spanning the state from State Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose to Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles. The California Medical Board accepted both Sen. Ted Lieu’s call to investigate whether doctors are recklessly prescribing and the public interest group Consumer Watchdog’s plea to probe prescribers’ ties to drug companies. Given the short time since publication and the entrenched nature of California’s health bureaucracy, advocates say the level of activity is stunning — and they are hopeful of a seismic change in state policy in the coming year.

With “Drugging our Kids,’’ de Sá and Sugano have given voice to the many young people who felt they had been silenced throughout their youth by the powerful drugs. Former foster youth Joymara Coleman wrote: “Spreading the truth isn’t always comfortable. I’m happy to be a part of a movement that is making waves.”

The impact of this project is enhanced by the striking digital presentation, viewable on the desktop and mobile devices, created by Chen and Baca.
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