Child Baker Acts double in Florida amid lack of long-term resources

9 Investigates: more Florida children are being forced into mental health evaluations than ever before

More Florida children are being forced into mental health evaluations than ever before.

The latest numbers are due out next month, but 9 Investigates scoured 15 years of data and found child Baker Acts have more than doubled in that time.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray spoke to a mother whose daughter has been in and out of such facilities about the struggle to find long-term treatment.

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Inside a local elementary school, a Seminole County mother admits her 11-year-old has attacked teachers, and threatened to take her own life.

“I’m scared of what she's going to do when we're sleeping,” the mother said. “Is that the time she's going to follow through with her threats?”

We’re not identifying the family, but they’re well known to law enforcement.  Their oldest child has been taken for involuntary mental evaluations under the state’s Baker Act more than 20 times.  Her first was at just 9 years old.

“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 she was released,” the mom said.

9 Investigates found the girl is part of a startling increase in children being admitted under the Baker Act in Florida.

According to data compiled by the University of South Florida’s Baker Act Reporting Center, the number more than doubled over the course of 15 years, with children now accounting for 1 in every 6 involuntary commitments in the state.

“What we've been doing is reactive,” attorney Kendra Parris said.

Parris specializes in helping families through Baker Acts. She pointed to a lack of long-term residential mental health treatment for children in Florida as one reason for the high numbers.

“A child is bouncing in and out of a Baker Act facility, and there's nowhere to send them on a long-term basis, so a lot of these parents are forced to go out of state,” Parris said.

That’s something a state task force echoed in 2017, noting "challenges in accessing services, including denials and limitations by third party payers" in a final report.  The task force also noted Florida, which consistently ranks among the lowest for funding mental health services nationwide, is "not adequately investing in its children, youth and families."

“I was actually being told, ‘There's no programs available to her, she needs to go to jail,’” the mother we spoke with said.

That mother says she’s now on two waiting lists for a case manager to try to get her daughter into a residential treatment program. The beds are hard to come by  and harder to pay for without the help of insurance or Medicaid.

“You're dealing with somebody who really needs to be there, so we need to have options,” the mom said.

As startling as the increase is, experts say the actual numbers are even higher, because data is only collected on involuntary Baker Acts. Children and families who go to these facilities voluntarily aren’t counted in the total data.