Baker Act Testing Among Florida Kids Hits New All-Time High
It’s a sobering sign of Florida’s mental health crisis among children.
While the overall number of Baker Act exams performed on adults in Florida has decreased, during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, more of these involuntary mental health exams were performed on children than ever before.
The numbers were published as part of the latest annual report of the University of South Florida Baker Law Reporting Center.
According to the report, during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the number of involuntary psychiatric examinations performed on children exceeded 38,000, an increase of 77% in the past decade alone. The numbers equate to an average of just over 100 children per day who, in one year, underwent mental health screenings against their will in Florida.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I was a little concerned or dismayed that this false narrative was happening during the pandemic that our kids were doing well,” April Lott, executive director of Directions for Living in Clearwater, trauma treatment center, he said.
Lott knows the troubling history of the state of children acting as bakers. She served in the state Baker Act Task Force, a group created by the legislature in 2017 to study why so many children in Florida were being involuntarily tested under the state’s Baker Act. Later that year, the group published a series of recommendations on how to reduce those numbers.
“The only mission was to figure out how to reduce these Baker Act numbers, specifically among children, but the numbers continue to rise. Does this mean the state has failed?” asked investigative reporter Katie LaGrone.
“It’s a good question. I don’t know if the state has failed. I think the dynamic has shifted our way,” Lott said.
Lott is referring to the pandemic. A year earlier, during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the University of South Florida Baker Law Reporting Center posted its first decline in Baker Act testing among children since the state began tracking the numbers more than a decade ago.
But that drop was pointed to by experts as an anomaly from a year dominated by COVID shutdowns, school closures and distance learning.
Lott believes that these most recent statistics reflect the consequences of the pandemic on children. According to the report, the highest number of child exams during the 2020-2021 fiscal year occurred among white girls ages 11 to 14.
“Our children are suffering, they are fighting. Their behavior tells us that they are using words like suicide and death by suicide. The pandemic has exacerbated that crisis in a way that I don’t think people anticipated,” Lott explained.
Still, Lott also believes that the Baker Act is also overused with children, especially in schools and among law enforcement, who initiate the vast majority of Baker Acts among children and adults.
While the state has taken some steps to reduce unnecessary Baker Acts, including now requiring school districts to report the number of Baker Acts they initiate in children each year and requiring parents to be notified before their child receives Baker Act on campus, advocates believe that most children who are Baker Acted under state law are not needed.
“In Florida, we use the Baker Act at the first sign of a problem when we should be using it as a last resort,” said Sam Boyd, senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Last year, the nonprofit organization issued this scathing report and sued the Palm Beach County School District accusing the district of illegally using the Baker Act on students, some as young as 5 years old.
Since then, the district has adjusted some of its Baker Act policies on students, and the lawsuit is still pending. But Boyd believes the latest numbers show that despite some local policy changes and millions in state efforts to treat children before the crisis, the state still largely fails to control how it uses the Baker Act. in minors.
“It really is the worst way to deal with a child with an emergency psychiatric challenge,” he said. “We really have to think about all the exit ramps we can take before we get to a place where we feel like we need to institutionalize a child,” Boyd said.
“It is traumatizing, and I would say that, in the vast majority of cases, it is unnecessary,” he said.
Is it time for Florida to do away with the Baker Act?
“You know, that’s an excellent question,” Lott said. “I want to say that the five-year plan and the 10-year plan should, in fact, be very close to eliminating the Baker Act. But to get away from the Baker Act, to eliminate the need for a Baker Act, we need to invest upstream. We have to invest in our children’s mental health and fund that differently.”
This year Mental Health America ranked Florida 49th in the nation for access to mental health care.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed and the Governor signed a bill that allocates more than $100 million in annual recurring funds for mental health, a landmark move for the state of Florida.
WPTV looked at the total number of people Baker acted upon in each county and what percentage of those incidents involved someone under the age of 18.
In palm Beach County, 19.6% of Baker Act incidents involved children. was 22.9% in Martin County and 25.1% in St Lucie County and 25.9% in indian river county.
However, in Okeechobee Countythe number of all Baker Acts involving minors jumped to nearly 39.6%, which is twice the state average.