Religious bias may have spurred demise of child medicating bill

Tallahassee, USA - An effort to warn parents of the dangers of mental-health drugs on children was defeated unexpectedly Tuesday by lawmakers, feeding speculation that it was killed in part because of its link to the Church of Scientology, which opposes the use of the drugs.

The bill was touted last month by prominent Scientologists and actresses Kelly Preston and Kirstie Alley.

It would have required parents to read and sign a long and ominous-sounding statement detailing the dangers of the drugs once their children are referred in public school for evaluations of learning disabilities or emotional, behavioral or mental disorders.

A similar measure passed the full Legislature last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Jeb Bush, who thought the bill went too far.

Miami Beach Republican Rep. Gus Barreiro, a kids' rights crusader worried about the ''epidemic'' of over-drugging, drafted the new legislation to quell the governor's concerns and give parents the right to know the risks of drugs such as Ritalin and Strattera.

''This is bigger than tobacco,'' Barreiro said, citing a state report showing a 425 percent increase over the past five years in diagnoses of attention-deficit disorder. ``What's happening to our kids and what we're doing to our kids, it's really, truly inexcusable.''

But on a 6-4 vote, the House Health Care Regulation Committee heeded the warnings of mental-health specialists and killed the legislation, saying it would have presented parents an overly biased view against mental-health treatments, thereby erecting barriers to treatment.

''It's misleading,'' said Rep. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat. To illustrate her point, she read off the side-effects of one popular medication that sounded dangerous before noting its name: Penicillin.

Sobel, like the others who voted against the bill, said she opposed it because of its contents, not its supporters -- the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology-funded organization dedicated to ``investigating and exposing psychiatric human rights abuse.''

The Clearwater-based executive director of the commission's Florida chapter, Helyn Dunn, said it will continue to push the legislation in the Senate and build on what it says is a coalition of nearly 30 groups worried about drugging kids.

Concerns about Scientology have ''been a problem all along,'' Dunn said. ``But this isn't about Scientology or Scientologists. The overdrugging of children should concern everybody.''

The disclosure letter the legislation called for would have furthered the commission's battle against psychiatrists by telling parents that the diagnosis of mental disorders such as depression and attention-deficit disorder are ``based on . . . observation and subjective interpretation.''

SCIENTOLOGIST SUPPORT The commission's lobbyist, Bob Reynolds, said that ''a number'' of lawmakers -- he wouldn't say who -- inquired about the Scientology angle.

'It was said with some frequency: `This is who you represent.' And that's sad. This is a participatory democracy,'' Reynolds said.

Barreiro said he, too, was aware of some colleagues' discomfort with Scientology and said it ''could have played a role'' in the defeat of the legislation.

He and Reynolds said the opposition by mental-health professionals played a big part as well.

Among the opponents was Wayne K. Goodman, a University of Florida psychiatry professor and chair of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's psycho-pharmacology advisory panel.

Goodman said the letter to parents could have been a ''barrier'' to treatment because it stressed the ''black box'' warnings about mental health drugs, but did nothing to inform parents of their effectiveness.