Ritalin on Trial

While some Houston parents fight what they charge is "a river of Ritalin" running through the schools, one father has gone to court to try to prove that, for his son, Ritalin use is Ritalin abuse.

Steven Keene is a man obsessed. He's also a man who says he can point to the source of his obsession with unusual clarity. It was a fall day in 1994, and the divorced graphic artist had driven to Katy to pick his son up from his ex-wife. At the time, the two parents had shared custody of their then eight-year-old child, and, Keene has said, he had little problem with how his son's mother was carrying out her part of the child-rearing. But on that day, when his son got into the car, the elder Keene noticed a change in his behavior. His tall, blond boy, who sometimes annoyed teachers with his frequent questions, didn't have his usual vitality. Normally, he would be bubbling about spending the long weekend with his dad in The Woodlands. But something was missing, Keene thought as he looked at the boy's face. The spark was gone from his son's green eyes.

The problem, he decided, was Ritalin. It was a drug he'd first heard about a couple of years earlier, when teachers at a private school had suggested that his son, who's also named Steven, might have Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Until 1987, the disorder didn't have that particular name; from 1980 to 1987, it had simply been known as Attention Deficit Disorder, and prior to 1980, it had gone under a variety of labels, including "minimal brain dysfunction" and "hyperkinetic disorder of childhood." But whatever the name, the symptoms were the same: children with the disorder typically can't sit still. They act on impulse, clown and cut up, get into fights, talk back to adults and, most important, can't seem to focus on school work.

Keene couldn't argue that his son didn't have some of the signs of ADHD. The younger Steven had never been an angel. Tall for his age, he'd always tested the limits of discipline. But despite his chronic behavior problems, all he really needed, his father thought, was firmness and discipline. And, he claims, the examinations carried out on his son at the behest of the private school confirmed his opinion -- though they also introduced him to the possibility of treatment with Ritalin. Since the late 1960s, millions of American parents have medicated their children with Ritalin, the brand name of the amphetamine methylphenidate. Though no one knows exactly why, Ritalin seems to calm down many children diagnosed as having ADHD. Some researchers believe that Ritalin might stimulate a portion of the brain that controls attention. And many parents with children so hyperactive that they can't function have come to view Ritalin as a godsend.

But Ritalin, according to others, has also become a drug that's prescribed too cavalierly, being given out not only to children who really need it, but also to children who can be better treated in other ways or, in the worst cases, to children whom adults want to quiet down not for the children's sake, but the adults'. Steven Keene felt his son fell into one of the latter categories. And even though the private school that had suggested his son be tested didn't end up recommending Ritalin, Keene had still taken him out of it, concerned that Ritalin was too popular a treatment there.

That's also why, he says, he sued for full custody of his child in July 1994. He'd just learned that his ex-wife would be putting his son into a public school, and in a Houston-area public school, Keene was convinced, Ritalin would be handed out immediately.

So when he picked his son up in September 1994 and saw that his fears had been realized, he knew, he says now, what he had to do. The first thing was to pick up the bag of Ritalin he'd been given to dose his child with and empty it out the car window, scattering a storm of yellow pills in his wake. The second was to push his custody battle even harder. It's a decision that's brought him considerable grief. He's been jailed twice, nearly lost his house and gone deeply into debt for legal fees. He's lost joint custody, getting instead every other weekend visitation. His ex-wife, Patricia Radloff, declined to be interviewed about the case, but in court her attorney has noted that she spends more time with their son and knows better what he needs, and one of the things he needs is Ritalin, which is, she says, helping him. Whatever problems the younger Steven has complained of, says her lawyer, are problems his father has coached him to report -- coached him in an effort to get full custody and, perhaps, child support.

But Keene insists that his son hates the way the drug makes him feel and describes the effect as like being in a concrete cell that he tries to break out of at the end of the day.

Last September, after a year of legal maneuvering, Keene finally got a chance to argue his case in court. Presiding was family law judge Linda Motheral, and officially at issue was Keene's petition for full custody of his son. But to Steven Keene, the issue was even bigger. What he hoped to do was put Ritalin itself, the drug he says is his son's chemical straitjacket, on trial.

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