Rebecca Riley’s Murderous Care Remembered

While it came as no surprise that Rebecca Riley’s mother was convicted of murder, most observers–including, it seems, the jury that convicted her–believe that a great injustice was done: how could the doctor, a child psychiatrist at a prominent University, Dr. Kayoko Kifuji, who blithely prescribed the deadly cocktail of drugs that killed the four year old child, has escaped without even the slightest penalty?

In a column in the Boston Globe , Yvonne Abraham, who confronted Tufts University which continues to employ Dr. Kifuji, expresses our feelings when she writes:
"Her mother’s murder trial has been over for a couple of weeks now, but I’m still haunted by little Rebecca Riley."

Boston’s criminal justice, it would appear, discriminates between the underclass and the elite: when well-connected academics have violent rages–even kill–their crimes are discreetly laid to rest without criminal charges–I’m thinking of Dr. Amy Bishop , who stands accused in Alabama for killing three of her colleagues. But in 1986, in Boston, she shot her brother dead after a family argument–without ever being charged and without a proper police investigation.

Below, in a column in Psychology Today, Larry Diller, MD  writes: "it is not all that surprising that Tufts and the licensing board backed Kifuji’s actions.  It is only about 27 miles between where she worked and the Massachusetts General Hospital where Joseph Biederman, head of Harvard’s Pediatric Psychopharmacology Clinic, has long espoused the bipolar diagnosis in children.  He and his group have claimed the diagnosis can be made in children as young as two and should be followed by aggressive psychiatric drug interventions.  I wonder if this crime had taken place anywhere in the country but New England whether the powers that be would have been as supportive of Kifuji."

"In America, " he observes, "doctors have the equivalent power afforded gun owners by the "right to bear arms" second amendment to the Constitution.  Once awarded a medical license a doctor can prescribe any drug approved by the FDA for any purpose.  The doctor is guided by her medical judgment and ethics."

"Dr. Kifuji determined that Rebecca at age two had hyperactivity and began prescribing drugs to her at that time.  Kifuji changed her diagnosis to bipolar disorder at age three.  She also made the same diagnosis for Rebecca’s brother and sister who were nine and seven.  All three were receiving variations of these sedating psychiatric medications.  Kifuji, who was granted immunity against prosecution to gain her cooperation, testified during the trial that she relied almost exclusively on reports from Rebecca’s mother on the children’s aggressive behavior, sleep problems and history of mental illness in the family to make the diagnosis for the three children." 

We learn from Abraham’s column that Tufts hired a new chief of child psychiatry, Dr. John Sargent, who came to Tufts just over a year ago," championing an approach to treating children that seems worlds away from Kifuji’s." That is, he is "well-known for looking beyond the prescription pad in treating kids."

Tufts, she notes, "has made a major move in the right direction. Listening to him talk about his caring, careful approach to his work, I was comforted by the possibility that some good might come from Rebecca’s death."

Unfortunately, neither Harvard University nor its psychiatry faculty have not been chastened at all by children’s drug-related deaths. Harvard is the preeminent leader in promoting unsubstantiated diagnoses–such as bipolar–for children and the prescribing of powerful psychotropic drugs for such children.

In fact, the panel revising psychiatry’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual-V, "the bible" of American Psychiatry due out in 2013, has eliminated the bipolar diagnosis for children.

However, Harvard Medical School has elected to serve as a stronghold of the pharmaceutical industry: as the Senate Finance Committee investigation has shown, both its faculty–in psychiatry in particular–and the institution itself, are the recipients of many millions of dollars from manufacturers of these deadly drugs. So, don’t expect Harvard to return to the teaching and practice of trustworthy medicine anytime soon.

 Vera Hassner Sharav

THE BOSTON GLOBE
Steps toward a cure
By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Columnist  |  February 21, 2010

Her mother’s murder trial has been over for a couple of weeks now, but I’m still haunted by little Rebecca Riley.

Why did no one manage to rescue this 4-year-old child as her parents pumped her full of powerful psychotropic drugs, drugs that would kill her? And how could the doctor who blithely prescribed those drugs have escaped even the slightest penalty?

Tufts Medical Center, where Dr. Kayoko Kifuji works, has had almost nothing to say about the case, other than to blandly defend the doctor’s care for Rebecca as professional and appropriate.

The silence is understandable, I suppose – Kifuji faces a malpractice suit brought on behalf of Rebecca’s estate, one Tufts is right to worry will cost the hospital dearly – but it is ultimately indefensible. And so I put some questions to Tufts last week. Why is Kifuji still employed there? Is the hospital dealing with other children the way Kifuji dealt with Carolyn Riley’s? Has anything changed since that poor kid’s awful death?

They wouldn’t address the first question, of course. But I was invited to sit down with Dr. John Sargent, chief of child psychiatry, to talk about the others. He came to Tufts just over a year ago, championing an approach to treating children that seems worlds away from Kifuji’s.

She continued to prescribe drugs for the Riley children despite numerous red flags – some raised by health professionals alarmed that the children were so heavily medicated. Where Kifuji shut others out, Sargent said he believes therapists should seek out the opinions of other counselors, health care workers, educators, social workers.

“You have to take a holistic approach,’’ he said. “You look at a number of factors outside your office. I want to know the kid’s life out there. . . . I expect that of everybody who works with me.’’

Sargent also demands that his staff spend plenty of time watching the children in their care: how they play, how they interact with their parents, how they handle challenges. The Riley children were sometimes asleep in their strollers during visits to Kifuji.

He says he uses great caution before he prescribes mood-altering drugs for kids. A no-brainer, though not, it would seem, for Kifuji.

Sargent says a shift in psychiatric treatment of children has been underway for at least five years across the whole field – not just at Tufts, and not necessarily as a response to Riley’s 2006 death.

But he conceded this much: “Any time you’re involved in a situation that has an outcome you wish hadn’t happened, it makes you look at what you’re doing. The leadership has changed and the focus of the leadership has changed.’’

Kifuji is very closely supervised these days, according to the hospital. On Thursday, Sargent called her “a tremendously dedicated, gracious, hard-working person who truly loves children.’’

Obviously, she didn’t kill Rebecca. Carolyn Riley did. (Riley’s husband, Michael, is also charged in the murder). A grand jury declined to indict the doctor in Rebecca’s death. Two Tufts reviews found that Kifuji didn’t break any rules.

But that doesn’t make her actions any less disturbing. Kifuji’s decisions put those drugs in the Rileys’ hands. And they’re decisions some other doctors refused to make: At one stage, Carolyn was traveling 100 miles to see Kifuji in Boston because nobody in Springfield would give her the drugs she wanted.

In recruiting Sargent, well-known for looking beyond the prescription pad in treating kids, Tufts has made a major move in the right direction. Listening to him talk about his caring, careful approach to his work, I was comforted by the possibility that some good might come from Rebecca’s death.

But as long as Kifuji remains on his staff, I’ll have my doubts.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

PSYCHOLOGY TODAY  
Mother Convicted, Pediatric Bipolar Disorder Innocent
Lawrence Diller, MD

On February 9th a jury at the Plymouth Superior Court in Massachusetts convicted Carolyn Riley of second degree murder of her daughter, Rebecca, a 4 year old, who died three years ago.  Rebecca’s father, Michael, will be tried separately for first degree murder next month.  A county coroner determined an overdose of the medication, clonidine obtained from a child psychiatrist, caused Rebecca’s death.  Prosecutors maintained that the parents intentionally overdosed their daughter to "keep her quiet".  Apparently the jury didn’t accept the parents’ defense which had them "just following the doctor’s orders."

In essence, Kayoko Kifuji, the child psychiatrist who prescribed clonidine to Rebecca, was exonerated with the mother’s conviction. Kifuji worked at the Tufts New England Medical Center.  She also prescribed two other medications to Rebecca used frequently in children’s psychiatric problems, Seroquel, approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating schizophrenia and Depakote, studied and approved for epilepsy.  Clonidine, also known as Catapress, was approved and studied for the treatment of hypertension.  However, all three drugs are widely used in the treatment of pediatric bipolar disorder – although the FDA has approved none of them for this use.  All three are potentially heavily sedating.

In America doctors have the equivalent power afforded gun owners by the "right to bear arms" second amendment to the Constitution.  Once awarded a medical license a doctor can prescribe any drug approved by the FDA for any purpose.  The doctor is guided by her medical judgment and ethics.  However, doctors can be sued or have their licenses terminated if their treatment does not conform to "current medical standards."

Dr. Kifuji determined that Rebecca at age two had hyperactivity and began prescribing drugs to her at that time.  Kifuji changed her diagnosis to bipolar disorder at age three.  She also made the same diagnosis for Rebecca’s brother and sister who were nine and seven.  All three were receiving variations of these sedating psychiatric medications.  Kifuji, who was granted immunity against prosecution to gain her cooperation, testified during the trial that she relied almost exclusively on reports from Rebecca’s mother on the children’s aggressive behavior, sleep problems and history of mental illness in the family to make the diagnosis for the three children.

When Rebecca died, Dr. Kifuji initially withdrew from practice.  Her license was temporarily suspended. But she is now back working at Tufts.  Right from the start, the University defended her, saying her practice with Rebecca was" within medical standards."  Subsequently Kifuji, herself, underwent hours of testimony in front of a grand jury but was not indicted.  The Board of Registration in Medicine, Massachusetts’ medical licensing organization, also allowed her last year to return to practice.

Yet when I tell non-psychiatric colleagues and friends that a three year old was prescribed three psychiatric drugs for bipolar disorder, they are uniformly incredulous or shocked.  So apparently were the jurors.  Requesting anonymity after the trial, jurors told the Boston Globe, "Every one of us was very angry. Dr. Kifuji should be sitting in the defendant’s chair, too. It blew me away." Clearly the jurors and most of the country were unaware of this practice of medicating younger and younger children with these powerful drugs.

However, it is not all that surprising that Tufts and the licensing board backed Kifuji’s actions.  It is only about 27 miles between where she worked and the Massachusetts General Hospital where Joseph Biederman, head of Harvard’s Pediatric Psychopharmacology Clinic, has long espoused the bipolar diagnosis in children.  He and his group have claimed the diagnosis can be made in children as young as two and should be followed by aggressive psychiatric drug interventions.  I wonder if this crime had taken place anywhere in the country but New England whether the powers that be would have been as supportive of Kifuji.

Biederman has been arguably the most powerful and influential child psychiatrist in the country.  Drug companies, eager to promote his views and their wares to other doctors, paid and flew him all over the country.  More recently his "science" has come under scrutiny over a series of conflict of interest charges with the drug industry.  Even before his public scandals, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the official organization of American child psychiatry, published guidelines declaring that bipolar disorder could not be diagnosed in children under six and was a difficult diagnosis to establish in any pre-teen child.

A psychiatrist cynically once remarked, "ADHD drugs are for irritable and irritating kids.  Bipolar drugs are for very irritable and very irritating kids."  The point is even with controversy over the bipolar diagnosis, the use of anti-psychotic drugs like Seroquel, Risperdal and Zyprexa in the five and under population has doubled in the last five years, particularly among Medicaid and foster children.  There are tens of thousands of toddlers in America currently being managed (sedated) by their parents and doctors with these drugs.

Clearly, Kifuji didn’t literally put the teaspoons of clonidine that killed Rebecca into her mouth.  Still, like gun manufacturers who claim they bear no responsibility when someone misuses a handgun for murder, there’s something disingenuous about a doctor who prescribed these drugs and then acknowledges no moral culpability in the death of this unfortunate child.

I question whether the bipolar diagnosis can be reliably made in any child.  The new version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Psychiatry V, "the bible" of American Psychiatry is due out in 2013.  In news releases anticipating its publication, the plan apparently is to junk the bipolar diagnosis in children for something called temper dysregulation disorder emphasizing the transient nature of the problem (as opposed to the life long implications of bipolar disorder diagnosis) and an emphasis on changing the children’s environment rather than using drugs.

So many of these children currently diagnosed as bipolar come from chaotic and turbulent family environments.  Still I can imagine situations where these drugs, whatever label is applied to the children, will be used.  I don’t envy Kifuji and other child psychiatrists who work with indigent families with problem kids.  Non-drug interventions, particularly family and parenting therapies are hard to come by and deliver.  The child psychiatrist and her medications may be the last resort for keeping these children in their home and out of foster care where they are even more likely to get multiple medications.  I am glad I don’t have to face that ethical decision several time a day in a busy tertiary care university clinic.

Those that support and back pediatric bipolar disorder and its treatment have an obligation to speak out about the abuse of these drugs in the sedation and occasional deaths of children.  Their silence in this case has been deafening.  Unfortunately, it will take several more Rebecca Riley tragedies before the public makes it unacceptable for doctors to put these drugs in hands of parents to manage or mismanage the behavior of their very young children.

Lawrence Diller, M.D., practices behavioral pediatrics in Walnut Creek CA and is on the clinical faculty of UCSF.  He is the author of The Last Normal Child.