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DSS adviser to start evaluating kids

Psychiatrist will be available to review
mental-health cases at social workers’ request

The Patriot Ledger

A psychiatrist appointed to advise the state Department of Social Services on treatment of mentally ill children in the wake of the Rebecca Riley case will soon begin accepting requests to evaluate cases, a state official said.

Dr. Gordon Harper, a Harvard-trained child psychiatrist and medical director of child and adolescent services for the state Department of Mental Health, plans to start visiting regional DSS offices this week, Jose Martinez, spokesman for Gov. Deval Patrick, said yesterday.

Harper will speak to DSS employees about their needs and “review specific cases” at the request of social workers, Martinez said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. JudyAnn Bigby named Harper interim adviser Feb. 16. She acted after Social Services Commissioner Harry Spence said he could not find psychiatrists willing to advise the department about treatment of mentally ill children.

Spence was defending the department’s record with Rebecca Riley, 4, who died in Hull on Dec. 13. Her parents, Michael Riley, 34, and Carolyn Riley, 32, are charged with killing her by repeatedly giving her overdoses of clonidine, a blood-pressure drug used to treat mental illness in children.

Rebecca had been diagnosed at 2 with bipolar disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and was prescribed clonidine, the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel and the anti-seizure medication Depakote.

A therapist had filed an abuse report with the Department of Social Services six months before Rebecca died, saying Carolyn Riley and her children appeared overmedicated.

Social workers dismissed the allegation after doctors who prescribed the drugs said there was no problem. Spence said the department had no one else to evaluate the treatment.

After Rebecca died, the department removed her 11-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister, who were getting the same drugs for the same diagnoses. The treatments were changed after Children’s Hospital psychiatrists reviewed the cases, Spence said previously.

Besides asking social workers to refer cases to him, Harper has been helping the department develop a plan to “make the system more responsive to children’s mental health needs,” Martinez said.

There is no schedule for completing the plan, he said.

Some experts have questioned the validity of diagnosing preschool children with bipolar disorder. The psychiatrist who diagnosed and treated all three Riley children, Dr. Kayoko Kifuji at Tufts-New England Medical Center, has agreed to stop seeing patients while the Board of Registration in Medicine investigates the care she has provided.

Michael and Carolyn Riley are being held without bail. Their attorneys have said the couple simply followed doctors’ orders. The Rileys are due back in Hingham District Court on March 6.

Sue Reinert may be reached at