MEDICAL EXPERIMENTS: Study On Teen Inmates Raises Questions
A 1997 study conducted by Stanford University and the California Youth Authority that tested the effects of the psychiatric drug Depakote on juvenile inmates may have violated "admittedly conflicting state laws," the Los Angeles Times reports. The eight-week study, which took place at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, investigated the effects of the anti- seizure medication on 61 teenage inmates, all of whom were convicted of violent offenses, to "see if it would make them less aggressive." Lead researcher Dr. Hans Steiner, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, "needed to conduct his research on children who had performed violent acts" and his "entry to a population usually off-limits to medical research ... was hailed as a coup" at the time. Now, it appears that the research may have violated state laws prohibiting research on prisoners. One state law states "no biomedical research shall be conducted on any prisoner in this state." A second law, however, intended to provide prisoners access to experimental HIV and AIDS treatments, states that "prisoners can be given drugs available only through studies if it is in 'the best medical interest of the patient.'" Investigations by the CYA, the state attorney general and the new inspector general are currently underway. Officials believe that the first law was violated, and are now looking at possible violations of the "best interest" statute. Robert Presley, current secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, stated, "In the legal sense, and maybe the moral sense, we missed the boat on this one," noting that he has since issued a directive banning future research (Weber, 8/16). The study also drew fire from Gov. Gray Davis' office, the San Jose Mercury News reports. "The governor is not going to stand for any future instances of this nature," said spokesperson Hilary McLean, adding, "He does not want CYA wards to be used as guinea pigs ... and has slammed the door on any future experiments." Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, questioned the use of teenagers for experiments. He said, "When you involve young people who are not competent (to give consent) you've got to be extraordinarily careful. (Stanford) clearly was in there without appropriate consent" (Feder/Jordan, 8/16).
Who's to Blame?
Steiner and university officials, however, defend the study, intended to "combat the growing problem of juvenile violence," and claim that the former CYA medical director "assured them of the study's legality" (Los Angeles Times, 8/16). Steiner later told colleagues that the drug "helped some youths control their anger." None of the youths appear to have suffered side effects from the drug (San Jose Mercury News, 8/16). Stanford officials say they "followed a detailed checklist to address regulations regarding research on prisoners and minors." According to Kathy McClelland, Stanford's research compliance director, "The study satisfied federal requirements." She added that officials "relied upon a letter from CYA's medical director to confirm the study complied with state law." In addition, officials note that all participants in the study signed consent forms and "[a]ttempts were made to secure their parents' permission." If the parents did not respond, CYA officials consented for them. Now, CYA officials contend that they were unaware of the research until Steiner recently proposed a follow-up study. While they admit that "their own system for protecting the teenagers they imprison broke down," officials are now wondering why the agency's legal department never reviewed or authorized the study and why the two high-ranking officials who were aware of the study did not raise a red flag. According to Greg Zermeno, current director of CYA, "We're taking precautions to ensure it never happens again. We're not going to take anybody's word for what's appropriate anymore -- no matter how prestigious the organizations are" (Los Angeles Times, 8/16).