Baker Law exams among children reach a new all-time high.
It’s a sobering sign of Florida’s mental health crisis among children.
While the total number of Baker Act exams performed on adults in Florida has decreased, more of these involuntary mental health exams were performed on children during fiscal year 2020-2021 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 children were doing well,” said April Lott, executive director of Directions for Living in Clearwater, a trauma treatment center.
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.
“That is a good question. I don’t know the state has failed. I think the dynamic has changed for us,” Lott said.
Lott is referring to the pandemic. A year earlier, during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, USF’s Center for Baker Act Reporting recorded 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 fiscal year 20/21 occurred among white girls between the ages of 11 and 14.
“Our children are suffering; they are struggling. 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 on children each year and requiring parents to be notified before their child acts As a baker 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.
April Lott agrees.
“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 end the bakers law?
“You know, that’s an excellent question. I mean the five year plan and the 10 year plan should actually be very close to ending the Baker Act. But to move away from the Baker Act, by eliminating the need for a Baker Act, we must invest upstream. We have to invest in our children’s mental health and finance it differently,” Lott said.
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.