Will Lightbourne, head of California's Department of Social Services, says there's no simple way to end the pattern of thousands of foster children spending much of their youth drugged into malleability -- the horror eloquently revealed by reporter Karen de Sá on Sunday's Page One. He says it has to be part of the holistic rethinking of the entire foster care system that's under way, giving doctors better options than prescribing psychotropic drug upon psychotropic drug to control children who act out.

Really? Really? If this isn't a crisis, then what is?

The abusive use of powerful medications on kids with formative brains cries out for action. Each child who grows up scarred by this is a human tragedy and, in many cases, a lifetime burden on society.

Yes, the whole foster care system needs rebuilding, and yes, that could reduce the incentive to drug kids to alter behavior. But we can't write off the children in the system now. That's like declining to treat a cancer because the cure hasn't been found.

It's time to act. There are things the state can do now to at least begin to control the damage to children's minds and physical health.

Foster children are the most vulnerable of California's young. They are in state custody as a last resort because going back to their families is impossible. Thousands of them are given powerful psychotropic medications -- often two or four or more at a time, prescribed to deal with behavior and not to treat the mental illnesses for which the FDA has approved them. These drugs can lead to lifetime health problems, such as obesity.


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De Sá found 12.2 percent of California foster children who received a psychiatric drug last year were taking multiple drugs at the same time. System insiders say it's often in doses never tested to be safe for children, whose brains are developing. How is this even legal? How hard can it be to limit?

There are simple rules that could help. As one example, California appears to have cut the use of antipsychotic drugs in children under 5 a few years ago when it added a layer of documentation required of doctors. The Department of Health Care Services is looking at requiring the same for teen-agers. Why not immediately?

Three years ago the federal government identified overuse of psychotropics on foster children as a national problem and ordered states to make plans to control it. The committee California set up has moved at a snail's pace, unable to get access to prescribing information, among other issues. Members are frustrated. They don't expect to finish their work until at least 2016.

Frustration is no surprise. It took this newspaper nine months to get the data for these articles, and it's required by law to be public as long as identities are concealed.

Lightbourne, who previously ran Santa Clara County's social services, might be able to pull off a holistic remake of the foster care system. We hope he does. But massive drugging of California's foster children is not a problem that can wait. The state needs to act now.