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The Times Leader (Wilkes Barre, PA)

February 27, 2000

Author: JOE SYLVESTER, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON and KEVIN HOFFMAN jsylvester@leader.net chrisj@leader.net kevinh@leader.net

Tracy Chopick said her young son was stubborn.  He wouldn’t do his school work.b He misbehaved. The Lee Park Elementary School student underwent counseling and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.  He was put on the stimulant medication Dexedrine and an anti-depressant, Prozac.   But because he had a reaction to them, his mother stopped giving them to him. Chopick, 27, of Wilkes-Barre, says Hanover Area School District officials pressured her to keep her son medicated.  When she didn’t, Luzerne County Children and Youth Service officials charged her with medical neglect, and more than six months ago took her son away, she said.  He lives with Chopick’s mother.  Hanover Area officials did not return calls for comment. The boy’s grandmother, Karen Wilcox of Wilkes-Barre, said that when the boy was on medication, he was getting poor grades, and became vilolent and aggressive.

Now, the boy is an A and B student at a different school, she said.  Earlier this month, local NAACP leader Ron Felton said he has found through anecdotal evidence that minority and poor children are being prescribed stimulant drugs such as Ritalin too often. Some parents concur with the statements of the local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Others say the drugs have dramatically improved their children’s lives. The father of a Heights-Murray Elementary School student in the Wilkes-Barre Area School District said a doctor pushed him to put his son on a stimulant drug because the boy was diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder.  For the past year, the 8-year-old third-grader has been taking Adderall.  He is calmer and doing better in school.

Nearly one-fourth of all school-age children in the United States have been diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit disorder, said Dr. David Stein, a clinical psychologist and author of “Ritalin is Not the Answer.” Of the children diagnosed, nearly 2 million take Ritalin or a related drug. The drug’s side affects can include insomnia, personality change, nervousness, anorexia, dizziness, headaches, heart palpitations, nausea and interference with normal height and weight gains, Stein said. According to research reported recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of 2- to 4-year-olds on psychiatric drugs – including Ritalin and anti-depressants such as Prozac – soared 50 percent from 1991 to 1995. Findings such as these are troubling to Dr. Peter Breggin, author of  “Talking Back to Ritalin” and  “Reclaiming Our Children.”  He believes the effects of Ritalin and related drugs could have a negative impact on child development.  “We’re bathing the growing brain in a toxin, and actually these drugs suppress brain functions and can kill brain cells,” Breggin said.   “We know that Ritalin causes permanent changes in brain chemistry.”  Breggin said Ritalin is a North American medical fad, and the United States uses 90 percent of the world’s Ritalin.  CibaGeneva Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Ritalin, is trying to expand the market to Europe and the rest of the world.

Breggin urges parents to return to basic teaching and parenting skills instead of resorting to a quick fix.   “ADD is not a disease. It’s a list of behaviors we want to suppress, like squirming in their chair and talking out of turn,” Breggin said. “Using psychoactive drugs to suppress the spontaneous behavior of children is not an answer to our problems.” Dr. Henry Maguire, an associate in child neurology at Penn State Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, said he gets more flak from parents who want their kids to take stimulant drugs than those who don’t think they should. Maguire said there’s no question that Ritalin works for many kids, but it’s a tough clinical diagnosis, meaning there’s no sure test for it. He acknowledged the drug is sometimes overprescribed.   “There’s a tendency to put people on medication simply because (parents) don’t know what the hell else to do. We substitute a good home, good social work … with a drug.”

Some children with attention problems could be helped without drugs by getting more attention in smaller classes or counseling.   “As a society we have decided we are not going to spend the money to allow this to happen,” Maguire said.  “The pills are always available, but the psychologists aren’t.” School districts accused Felton said he has received calls from parents who feel school districts are pushing the drug. He recently voiced his concerns about the drug at a Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting. He has urged parents to come forward, but most people say they fear retribution against their children.   “I feel it should be a last resort type of thing,” Felton said.   “They should work with them a little more. Give the parents the same options we give ourselves, second and third opinions, rather than put them on something we may have to wean them off later or find could be addictive.”

Felton is considering asking physicians to evaluate whether local kids who take stimulant drugs should actually be doing so.  The mother of a 9-year-old Heights-Murray third-grader says school officials pressured her to put her son on Ritalin after a Children’s Service Center doctor diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder. He took the medication from the time he was in kindergarten until the middle of third grade last year.  When the boy began to have tantrums and nightmares, she stopped giving him the drug.  The 40-year-old mother said Luzerne County Children and Youth Services officials took her to court for suspected medical neglect and threatened to take her son. The charge was dismissed and another evaluation showed her son didn’t need the medication, she said.   “They kept pressuring me,” the woman said.   “On the medication, he was more aggressive, more violent.  When he was off the medication, I was called into the school for little things.”

Although he declined comment on specific cases, Children and Youth Services Director Eugene Caprio said he could not recall an instance in which a child was removed from a home because of a medication issue alone.  There would have to be another concern such as neglect or abuse. Heights-Murray Principal Michael Ferrence denies the school puts any pressure on parents to put children on medication.   “Usually we use classroom alternatives first, give that child some space to burn off that energy.” He said about a dozen of the school’s 700 students take Ritalin, and the percentage of minority students is small. Ferrence said he hasn’t seen an increase in that number in recent years.  “I think there was an increase over 10-15 years ago,” Ferrence said.   “I would attribute that to greater recognition of problems.” Call the Social Issues Team at 829-7242. Edition: MAIN Section: NEWS Page: 1A Record Number: 0002280102 Copyright (c) 2000 The Times Leader