ORLANDO, Fla. — The Florida Mental Health Act, better known as the Baker Act, has been on the books in Florida since 1971. The law allows for a person to be held, involuntarily, for up to 72 hours for a mental health evaluation. But in recent years the state has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people taken in under a Baker Act, including a surge of children Baker Acted while at school, many times before a parent or guardian is called.
“I really thought I was doing the right thing because they told me that I was,” says Tiffani Lyons, whose teenage daughter was Baker Acted at her middle school. “I believed them that they were going to keep her safe and that’s my problem now is that they took her from me and I could have kept her safe.”
For many parents like Tiffani, the first time they encounter the law is when their child is being taken in for evaluation. Across Florida rules for how and when to notify parents or guardians can vary by school.
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“I am very pleased to pass SB 560 dealing with the Baker Act and school safety this past Session,” wrote Florida State Senator Gayle Harrell (R SD-25). “SB 560 makes significant strides in addressing the increasing numbers of Baker Acts of children in school settings. It is a major step forward in moving toward deescalating situations when a student may be in crisis as opposed to automatically initiating a Baker Act and taking them to a receiving facility.”
The legislation calls for schools to make an effort to notify parents or guardians, but does not require it. It also calls for increased training and data collection.
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“There is no doubt that a key part of the legislation is the notification of parents as soon as possible using all available methods of communication such as text messages, telephone, cell phone, voice mail or email. Equally important, however, is the required intervention by a mental professional either in person or via telehealth in order to attempt to deescalate the situation and not move forward with the Baker Act,” wrote Senator Harrell.
The new law is in response to a dramatic escalation in Baker Acts involving kids in recent years. According to state numbers, almost 36,000 kids are Baker Acted each year, a number that has been consistently growing over the last decade, with the Florida Department of Children and Families recoding 36,149 involuntary commitments of minors in 2017/18; an increase of 105% since 2002/03.
“If the purpose is to help the child who’s having an acute health mental health crisis we have to ask ourselves are we actually making it worse are we doing something that is causing more harm than good,” says attorney Kendra Parris. “Part of it is that we don’t want make a mistake we don’t want something to happen in the future and then look back with regret.”
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Parris Calls the changes to the law an important step forward but wants to see how well they are implemented and if the changes accomplish the desired goal of reducing involuntary commitments of minors.
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Cox Media Group