9 Investigates

Child Baker Act cases continue to climb in Florida

Florida has once again broken the records for the number of people mentally evaluated, involuntarily, under the state’s Baker Act.

In May, investigative reporter Karla Ray first exposed that child Baker Act cases have more than doubled in Florida over the last 15 years.

Now, newly-released figures from the 2017-2018 fiscal year show there was a 10 percent increase in the number of children being mentally evaluated from the prior year.

The new numbers represent the months before new mental health funding made it into public schools after the Parkland shooting.  Experts are expecting the numbers to continue to climb as those additional mental health professionals spot warning signs and destructive behaviors inside schools.

In just one example, a Seminole County mother told 9 Investigates her 11-year-old daughter had been evvaluated under the Baker Act more than 20 times. That mother says her daughter has now been placed in a residential mental health treatment facility after a lengthy stay on a waiting list.

“The first year that she was in the Baker Act facility, she would get out, start punching us, threaten to kill herself, and go back the same day,” the mother, who we are not identifying, said.

A person can only be monitored under a Baker Act for 72 hours at a time.  The total number of child evaluations in Florida jumped to more than 36,000 in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, which is a 10 percent increase over the prior year’s numbers. That far outpaces the general population, which saw an increase of less than 3%.

“We have a mental health crisis in the state of Florida,” Democratic state Representative Carlos Guillermo-Smith said.

State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith expects the numbers to continue to climb, since the latest report is an evaluation of numbers from before additional resources were given to schools in response to Parkland.

“You have professionals who will be monitoring kids more closely, looking for red flags,” Representative Guillermo-Smith said.

Guillermo-Smith attempted to pass an amendment in Tallahassee to reallocate funds from the state’s Guardian program, which funds arming teachers, toward mental health professionals in schools that do not participate with the Guardian program.  The amendment failed.

Other efforts to increase residential treatment beds for children failed this legislative session.

“We need to make a tremendous investment for our kids,” Guillermo-Smith said.

A state task force took a hard look at this trend two years ago, noting Florida consistently ranks last or second to last in funding for mental health.  Next year’s report will show whether the focus on mental health in schools will make a real difference in the numbers.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.