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Legislation Aims to Update Baker Act Protocols for Children

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In Florida, 37,900 children were detained for involuntary psychiatric exams during 2018-2019. That's an increase of more than 150% in the past 18 years. WGCU’s Tara Calligan reports that legislation being considered in Tallahassee during this year’s legislative session would reform how Baker Act cases involving children are handled.

Florida’s Baker Act, formally referred to as the “Florida Mental Health Act,” passed into law 50 years ago. It allows for the involuntary institutionalization and examination of people -- generally with mental illness -- who are in danger of becoming a harm to themself, doing harm to others, or are self-neglectful.

The phrase “Baker Act“ has been used so often, it’s become a verb. People often refer to it as being “Baker Acted.”

These cases can be initiated by judges, law enforcement officials, physicians, mental health professionals, and close friends and relatives. And the criteria for Baker Acting someone is the same for children as it is for adults.

Florida Weekly staff writer Mary Wozniak’s story, titled “Revising the Baker Act,” was recently featured in the paper. In it, she reports that the rate at which children are being subjected to these examinations has increased far faster than all other age groups in recent years. She says the experience can be extremely traumatic for a child.

“What happens with a child is that they are often, especially in a school, they are taken by police in a police car, handcuffed, and they don’t have any rights, basically,” she said.

Wozniak goes on to say that in many cases, parents aren’t involved at all.

The percentage of children to adults who are Baker Acted is different county to county. Among the highest is Lee County, with 25 percent of Baker Acted people being minors. In Collier County, 30 percent, and 24 percent in Charlotte County are minors.

David Brown is the President and co-founder of Family Initiative, an organization that works within the community to support children and families impacted with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He says by law, children with autism should not be Baker Acted. And improper support in schools can lead to issues.

“What we do find with children on the autism spectrum, if they’re dysregulated and they’re having a hard time in an educational setting, their behavior can manifest in a way that presents like they could be having a tough time and be a threat to themselves or threat to other children," Brown said. "And then what we see consistently is that folks are not properly trained in an educational environment of how to help gain regulation for kids and how to support them. They then reach out to school leadership that are in that setting saying, you know, ‘I have a child in in classroom, and they’re upset.’"

Brown continued, "Also what we hear from parents is that a school resource officer is contacted. They come into that setting, and they just walk in and they see a child in a classroom that’s out of control. To me, you know I have two children that are in school right now. I hope my teacher understands my child and can communicate to other people and other professionals about the unique needs of my child.”

Two companion bills making their way through the state legislature would reevaluate how Baker Act cases involving those under 18-years-old are handled. The bills give more power to parents to ensure that they are involved from the moment their child first faces the possibility of being Baker Acted. Both bills have been introduced in their respective houses of the legislature and are undergoing review by various committees.

The sources for this report come from an excerpt of WGCU-FM’s talk show Gulf Coast Life. Listen to the entire conversation at WGCUNews.org.

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