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Lawyer accuses girl's doctor of misdeeds

Suit says overdose signals unheeded

By Carey Goldberg
Globe Staff / March 4, 2009
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A lawyer for the estate of Rebecca Riley, a Hull 4-year-old who died of an overdose of psychiatric drugs, argued before a malpractice tribunal yesterday that the girl's psychiatrist had committed a "laundry list" of medical misdeeds and should be held responsible in her death.

Rebecca's parents, Michael and Carolyn Riley, are accused of intentionally overdosing her in December 2006 to keep her sedated. They are awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder.

In an initial hearing as part of a civil suit brought by Rebecca's estate against Dr. Kayoko Kifuji, the plaintiffs presented a letter yesterday from a child psychiatrist in Florida they hired to review Kifuji's care of the girl.

Dr. Howard A. Goldman stated in the letter that Kifuji endangered Rebecca by overprescribing several heavy-duty medications and failing to monitor her condition well enough. He offers a "list of deviations from the standard of care, all of which he connects to her death," the plaintiffs' lawyer, Krysia Syska told the tribunal.

A lawyer for Kifuji defended her by noting that Rebecca's parents stand accused of overdosing her on purpose. "It is hard to find how a physician can be criticized if there was an intentional overdose of the medication provided," said William J. Dailey Jr.

Goldman's letter, however, says Kifuji diagnosed Rebecca with bipolar disorder too quickly; ordered too many drugs; failed to monitor their potentially deadly side effects; and did not heed warnings from Rebecca's school nurse that the girl had become like a "floppy doll."

Rebecca's death heightened the controversy around the growing practice of prescribing psychiatric medications to children, and particularly highlighted the question of whether young children should be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with antipsychotic drugs. Her parents deny killing her, and their lawyers say Rebecca died of pneumonia rather than of an overdose.

The Suffolk Superior Court tribunal, which consists of a judge, a lawyer, and a doctor, took the arguments under advisement and is expected to decide within a day or two whether the suit against Kifuji can go forward. A court-appointed guardian, who is representing the interests of Rebecca's brother and sister, filed the suit, seeking unspecified damages.

After Rebecca's death, Kifuji voluntarily agreed to refrain from practicing pending an investigation by the Board of Registration in Medicine.

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com.

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