A Conspiracy of Neglect

These are the stories that haunt me. This one is from the Boston Globe:

Hull parents arrested in girl’s poisoning death

The parents of a 4-year-old girl from Hull were arrested yesterday on murder charges after investigators concluded they poisoned their daughter, prosecutors said.

Michael Riley , 34, and his wife, Carolyn, 32, were taken into custody at his mother’s house in Weymouth in the death of their daughter Rebecca in December, said officials in the Plymouth district attorney’s office.

Just after 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 13, Hull police responded to a call for an unresponsive girl at the family’s home on Lynn Avenue, prosecutors said. They found Rebecca dead on her parents’ bedroom floor.

An investigation by State Police and Hull police found the girl had been prescribed the drugs clonidine for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and valproic acid and Seroquel for bipolar disorder. A psychiatrist had diagnosed her with both disorders at age 2 1/2, prosecutors said.

The medical examiner’s office determined the girl died from “intoxication due to the combined effects” of the drugs clonidine, valproic acid (Depakote), dextromethorphan, and chlorpheniramine, the district attorney’s office said in a statement.

“This occurred as a result of the intentional overdose of Rebecca with clonidine,” the statement said. “The manner of death was determined to be homicide….”

Denise Monteiro , a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services, said the department “found evidence for neglect” of Rebecca.

On Dec. 13, the agency removed the couple’s other children, a 6-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, from the home, Monteiro said. They remain in foster homes.

In 2005, DSS began investigating allegations that Michael Riley sexually abused a 13-year-old girl,…identified…as Carolyn Riley’s daughter from another relationship. The girl had been adopted to another home in 2002.

Also in 2005, DSS launched an investigation into whether Carolyn Riley had neglected her children, Monteiro said.

“We supported the allegations of abuse, and we forwarded that report to the Norfolk district attorney’s office,” she said. “We also supported the allegations of neglect against the mother.” [full text]

Such tragedies are unspeakable. Yet speak of them we must, for they are cautionary tales. In the case of Rebecca Riley, there is no doubt plenty of blame to go around. Whether or not the parents in fact “poisoned” their daughter (and that is for the justice system to decide), it seems evident from the information presently available that there was much amiss in the child’s home environment. If Rebecca’s short life was like that of all too many children here in Massachusetts and throughout the country, she experienced some measure of abuse and neglect from her caregivers, who may additionally have been violent with one another (or other partners) and struggled with substance abuse and/or mental illness. Thus, instead of being raised in a consistently stable and nurturing environment, Rebecca probably occupied a painful and confusing maelstrom. It is little wonder that she manifested emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Unfortunately, the mistreatment that seemingly marked her home life was to be coupled with mistreatment of a different sort — by the psychiatric profession. Despite the environmental and intrafamilial stressors that no doubt caused Rebecca to act out in any number of ways, the psychiatrist who “treated” her somehow saw fit to diagnose this child who was presumably barely out of diapers with a major mental illness, bipolar disorder. Having established such pathology (at least within the narrow, biologically-biased confines of his or her mind), the doctor then chose to subject Rebecca to a powerful and, in retrospect, dangerous cocktail of psychotropic medications some or all of which was prescribed off-label. It is difficult to imagine a more negligent and incompetent level of care. A suspension, if not an indictment, should be forthcoming.

But what of the psychiatric establishment at large, which increasingly overlooks or minimizes the role of environment in the development of dysfunction and dis-ease in favor of purely biological factors that can ostensibly be treated with medication? What of the pharmaceutical companies, and their sales representatives, which encourage such points of view and increasingly promote the off-label use of their products, such as the medication that Rebecca was on? What of the health insurance companies, which generally prefer the cost efficiency of pharmacotherapy versus psychotherapy and support such treatment? What of Congress and the Food and Drug Administration, which have permitted lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and insurance industry to have undue influence over public policy and to help create a system of care that values the profits of a few to the health of the many? What of the Bush Administration, which pays lip service to the needs of children and families but fails to adequately fund essential programs and services (instead spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the war in Iraq)? What of all these others who, in one way or another, were complicit in the death of Rebecca Riley? Why don’t they have to answer for this tragedy?

(UPDATE: More details have emerged, as reported here by the Boston Globe. The paper is also reporting that the child’s psychiatrist “agreed today to immediately stop seeing patients while the state investigates her role in the case.”)

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2 responses

  1. Spending the day in Massachusetts, I couldn’t avoid this story. It was so sad. The father in me wants to string these people up… the adult in me wants to find out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again… the activist in me wants to make sure we make a system where this could never happen… the human in me just wants to cry.

  2. [...] We covered the issue of the tragic death of Rebecca Riley back in February of 2006. Now Katie Couric has investigated for 60 Minutes. From the story: On Dec. 13, 2006, police responded to a 911 call and found a little girl lying dead on the floor next to her parents’ bed. The autopsy revealed that she had died from an overdose of psychiatric drugs. Rebecca Riley was being treated for bipolar disorder, or manic depression, even though she was just four years old. [...]

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