The arrest of a six-year-old girl with special needs in Jacksonville earlier this month is renewing calls to change Florida's Baker Act.
The child was taken to a behavioral health center for two days and given anti-psychotic medication, without her mother’s consent.
The Baker Act a Florida law allowing emergency mental health services and temporary detention of someone who cannot make decisions about treatment. According to the Baker Act Reporting Center, a project of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at the University of South Florida, the number of children involuntarily committed and examined at mental health facilities is increasing, .
On the Florida Roundup, hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross talked about the issue of children and the Baker Act with Tampa Bay Times Reporters Jack Evans and Megan Reeves, and Dr. Angela Mann with the Center for Children’s Rights in Jacksonville.
Here's an excerpt of their conversation:
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Melissa Ross: Dr. Mann, what do you say when you hear stories about families in crisis using the Baker Act essentially as a Band-Aid?
DR. ANGELA MANN: We've heard countless stories here locally of parents who are on waitlists for long periods of time trying to access mental and behavioral healthcare. And often, kids ending up being Baker Acted while they wait. We've also heard of stories of families who, after a Baker Act or after their child being arrested, are actually giving up their rights to their child and the child ending up in the foster care system, which we know places them at further risk for these kinds of issues.
Tom Hudson: Megan Reeves and Jack Evans, reporters for the Tampa Bay Times, what did your reporting find as it relates to children in Florida who are subject to the Baker Act? In other words, is there a danger to himself? Is it a danger to others? What is it that's being exercised there?
MEGAN REEVES: I want to point out that Jack and I solely focused on school. We didn't necessarily look into how children, in general, are being placed with the Baker Act, but specifically in schools. And I would agree, you know, that mental health services are not as available in schools as I think that they probably should be. I think the Baker Act should be something that's a last resort, but it's kind of become the only resort. That’s something that Jack and I often say because it just seems that intermediary services are not really available to kids. So, you have teachers who might get overwhelmed in their classroom.
Like Jack said, there might be a student who has autism or another disability, and they have what they often call meltdowns. That's behavior that that really is normal for them. And sometimes even coping mechanisms that are misunderstood by people who are not qualified in classrooms to help those children. And then the reaction is to immediately call an officer to the room. The officers, you know, their job, his or her job is to protect that school and keep it safe. I think in that kind of split-second decision, they're thinking 'We need to get this child out of the classroom. They're disrupting the classroom. The Baker Act is a good solution.'
Melissa Ross: Dr. Angela Mann, your organization, the Center for Children's Rights, has connected misuse of the Baker Act with the school-to-prison pipeline in some cases because the data shows overwhelmingly kids of color are more likely to be taken out of school or detained. As we saw, that really controversial incident in Orlando, a six-year-old girl was arrested. She was not Baker Acted, though. But how, in your view, would reform of the Baker Act address this other issue of the school-to-prison pipeline, where kids, primarily kids of color, are pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system?
DR. ANGELA MANN: I think there is concern that as Florida received lots of criticism for—at one point several years ago, leading the country in the school to prison pipeline—that schools may have been seeking other ways to push kids out. And in this case, Baker Acting data is not reported to the Florida Department of Education. And so, there is a real concern that this is being misused and that it's becoming the new way to push kids out of school.
We see that after incidents like Parkland, we saw pretty large increases in use of the Baker Act—around 10 percent. Our most recent data from the Department of Juvenile Justice indicates that school-based arrests have also increased by 10 percent. And this is while we see significant declines in community-based arrests, more use of civil citations. And so, it does seem like there is kind of generally a culture at this point of concern about youth behavior. And that's leading to a push-out in schools, largely because, as the reporters have already mentioned, there really is a lack of comprehensive services within schools to prevent these types of push-outs.
Tom Hudson: Megan and Jack with the Tampa Bay Times—what are the rules around parental or guardian notification when it comes to the Baker Act being exercised on a minor?
JACK EVANS: We've found that in most of our area school districts, based on the hundreds of police reports that we've reviewed, in an overwhelming majority of cases, parents don't know that their kids are being Baker Acted until they're already on their way to a mental health facility or already there. And that's essentially baked into the policy in many of these school districts, although some school districts in law enforcement agencies, it's more informal than it is formalized.
We spoke to some folks at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, who told us that their take on it is basically that calling a parent before a child is taken away from school. They think that it could actually make the situation worse, that a parent might show up to school angry and that they essentially don't want to deal with that. And they've told us that because of that they prefer not to contact parents until the Baker Act's already put into place. That's one of the explanations that we've gotten.
MEGAN REEVES: I'll add that something that we've heard from parents, though, kind of on the other end, is that they have pertinent information about their child. They know their child better than anyone. So, say their child does have a disability, say no one has looked at their individualized education plan— That parent could have key information that could dictate or change what happens.
WLRN depends on donors to remain South Florida’s leading nonprofit, most trusted source of news and information. Support our mission by giving monthly as a sustaining member of Friends of WLRN or make a one-time donation of your choice. Thank you. Click here to give.