The images of a police officer in Miami-Dade County taking a 7-year-old boy — in handcuffs — for a psychiatric exam after he hit a teacher sparked outrage in 2018.
That’s not what the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, known as the “Baker Act,” was intended to do. It allows law enforcement, courts or health professionals to commit a person, with or without their consent, for psychiatric evaluation if they present a danger of bodily harm to themselves or others or are likely to suffer neglect because of mental illness.
But it’s become common for similar cases to pop up in the news every so often — a 12-year-old boy with autism hauled away in a police car in Cocoa, a school resource officer slamming an 11-year-old to the ground in Fort Pierce. That’s because Florida’s rate of involuntary psychiatric examinations of children has more than doubled in the past two decades, from 547 per 100,000 children to 1,240 per 100,000, according to a report released in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled “Costly and Cruel.”
In 2018-19 alone, almost 40,000 children were involuntarily committed in Florida, more than 3,000 of them in Miami-Dade County.
At greater risk of being involuntarily committed are children of color and children with disabilities, the report says. The Baker Act has been increasingly used for behavior that’s typical of conditions such as autism, even though they are not considered a mental illness, Stephanie Langer, an attorney with Miami-based Disability Independence Group, told the Editorial Board.
One example Langer cited was a boy with autism, about 8 years old, in Okeechobee who got mad at his math teacher and climbed a tree. He was Baker Acted, put in handcuffs and taken to the nearest receiving facility 45 minutes away.
After the controversy in 2018 over the handling of the 7-year-old who hit the teacher, Miami-Dade’s school district changed its Baker Act policy. Among the changes: parental notification and that a police officer must consult with a lieutenant or supervisor of higher rank before executing a Baker Act. Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho credits those changes for a more than 50 percent decrease in the number of students Baker Acted by district police between 2012-13 and 2018-19.
According to Carvalho, of those 3,000 of students Baker Acted in Miami-Dade, only 258 were executed by Miami-Dade Schools Police, but that number doesn’t account for students off campus or at charter and private schools. Districts with their own police can lower their numbers by excluding Baker Acts that are executed by other law-enforcement agencies called to campuses, Bacardi Jackson, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Board.
How districts collect and report that data is in itself a problem because there is no consistency from district to district, Jackson said.
A bill moving in the Legislature would require better data collection and that public and charter schools notify parents before a Baker Act, unless a principal believes doing so would jeopardize a child’s safety. The bill would also require law enforcement to contact a crisis response team, either in person or via telehealth, prior to initiating a Baker Act of a student.
Passing Senate Bill 590 and House Bill 383 is the least lawmakers can do, though that likely won’t fix the issue entirely. Another bill moving in the Legislature would broaden the criteria under which people of all ages can be Baker Acted to include people who damage property, which could result in even more children being involuntarily commited. That should not happen. On the other hand, the legislation would also give law enforcement more leeway when deciding whether to involuntarily commit someone — many officers say they feel obligated under the law to do so.
Reforms are needed especially after the Parkland shooting in 2018, when the Legislature mandated that each school campus have a law-enforcement officer or armed presence, increasing the likelihood that students could be Baker Acted.
Of course, Baker Acts aren’t necessarily a bad thing and are often the only way people with serious mental illness receive care. Not every expert agrees their increased use is necessarily detrimental.
“It’s good for us to be concerned the Baker Act may be over-utilized, but what’s missing is the massive reduction in juvenile arrests during same period,” Miami-Dade Judge Steven Leifman, a leading advocate for mental-health treatment, told the Editorial Board. “We have been pushing for police to stop arresting kids — 75 percent of kids arrested in Florida have at least one mental-health condition.”
But the Editorial Board doesn’t believe the choice should be between an arrest and a Baker Act. The real problem lies deeper than any piece of legislation alone can address.
While Florida uses the Baker Act at a higher rate than the other 24 states that gather such data, it also ranks last in mental-health funding and at the bottom for access to mental healthcare. Didn’t we think decades of neglect and underfunding, coupled with an increase in depression and anxiety — which are made worse by the amount of time kids spend looking at screens and social media — would lead to more Baker Acts? If these new Baker Act numbers tell us anything, it’s that we need more funding to flag mental illness and, as important, treat it.