Leonora LaPeter Anton and John Pendygraft at the Tampa Bay Times:
Florida’s Baker Act directs police officers and some mental health professionals to hospitalize the mentally ill, but it was never intended to be used on children with autism or children who act out in class. The 48-year-old law even says those with developmental disabilities should not be committed unless they’re also mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others.
But more and more kids who do not meet the criteria are being taken from schools to crisis centers for up to 72 hours and more.
Across Florida, the number of children involuntarily transported each year to a mental health center has doubled in the last 15 years to about 36,000, or 100 a day, according to the Baker Act Reporting Center at the University of South Florida. More than 4,000 were under the age of 10.
There’s more awareness about reporting concerning behavior and more children making troubling statements on social media. And since the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in 2018, every public school in Florida has an officer or armed guard with a hard set of rules for dealing with kids in crisis.
Interviews with dozens of parents around the state reveal a system that sweeps up too many kids.
“She was 8,” said Lindsey Rezin, whose daughter, Marisol, has autism and was involuntarily committed for three days from an elementary school in Manatee County after she said - once - that she felt like stabbing herself. The officer asked if she knew where the knives were kept at home, and that was enough.
“It was unbelievably shocking. It rocked our world.”
The Tampa Bay Times found officers hospitalized children who had a meltdown, refused an order or drew a troubling picture. Some kids vaguely threatened to hurt themselves. Other children exhibited behavior that was typical for their development disabilities and identified in their federal education plans.
Often, the Baker Act of a child happens without parents’ knowledge or consent, and once the process is underway, they have no rights under the law to challenge a decision. These interactions with police can be particularly scary for parents of special needs children who struggle with tantrums and communication.
“In that moment, that decision may seem like a good one in order to err on the side of caution or avoid issues of liability,” said Kristin Kosyluk, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s Department of Mental Health Law & Policy who studies the impact of mental stigma. “But in the long term, the impact is a traumatized child, a traumatized family and an experience that can never be undone.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said police are “hands down, unequivocally the least qualified people to deal with this. The mental health training that law enforcement officers receive in the academy is minimal … so you end up with a lot of situations that are resolved by over-Baker Acting.”