It’s a sobering sign of Florida’s mental health crisis among children.
While the total number of Baker Act exams performed on adults in Florida is down, more of these involuntary mental health exams were done on kids during FY 2020-2021 than ever before.
The numbers were released as part of the latest annual report by the University of South Florida’s Center for Baker Act Reporting.
According to the report, during FY 2020-2021, the number of involuntary psychiatric exams done on kids exceeded 38,000, an increase of 77% in just the past decade. The numbers are equivalent to an average of just over 100 kids a day who, in one year, underwent mental health exams against their will in Florida.
“I am not surprised at all. In fact, I was a little concerned or dismayed that there was this false narrative happening during the pandemic that our children were doing well,” said April Lott, Executive Director for Directions for Living in Clearwater, a trauma treatment center.
Lott knows the state’s troubling history of baker-acting kids. She served on the state’s Baker Act Task Force, a group created by the legislature in 2017 to study why so many kids in Florida were being involuntarily examined under the state’s Baker Act law. Later that year, the group released a series of recommendations on how to bring down those numbers.
“The sole mission was to figure out how to bring these Baker Act numbers down, specifically among kids, but the numbers are still going up. Does this mean the state has failed,” asked Investigator Reporter Katie LaGrone.
“It’s a good question. I don’t know that the state has failed. I think the dynamics have shifted on us,” said Lott.
Lott is referring to the pandemic. A year earlier, during FY 2019-2020, USF’s Center for Baker Act Reporting logged its first-ever decrease in Baker Act exams among kids since the state started tracking the numbers more than a decade ago.
But that drop was chalked up by experts as an anomaly from a year dominated by COVID shut-downs, school closures and distance learning.
Lott believes these most recent statistics reflect the pandemic’s aftermath on kids. According to the report, the highest number of exams on kids during FY 20/21 occurred among white girls between the ages of 11-14 years old.
“Our children are hurting; they're struggling. Their behavior is telling us that they are using words like suicide and death by suicide. The pandemic has exacerbated that crisis in ways that I don't think people anticipated,” explained Lott.
Still, Lott also believes the Baker Act is also overused on kids, especially at schools and among law enforcement, who initiate the vast majority of Baker Acts among kids and adults.
While the state has adopted some measures to lower unnecessary Baker Acts, including now requiring school districts to report the number of Baker Acts they initiate on kids each year and requiring parents to be notified before their child is baker acted on campus, advocates believe most children who are Baker Acted under the state’s law aren’t necessary.
“In Florida, we use the Baker Act at the first sign of a problem when we should be using it as a last resort,” said Sam Boyd, a senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Last year, the non-profit issued this scathing report and sued the Palm Beach County school district accusing the district of illegally using the Baker Act on students, some as young as 5-years old.
The district has since adjusted some of its Baker Act policies on students and the lawsuit remains pending. But Boyd believes the latest numbers show despite some local policy changes and millions in state efforts to treat children before the crisis, the state is still, largely, failing to get control of how it utilizes the Baker Act on juveniles.
“It's really the worst way of dealing with a kid with an emergency psychiatric challenge,” he said. “We really have to be thinking about all the off-ramps that we can take before we get to a place where we feel like we need to institutionalize a child,” said Boyd.
April Lott agrees.
“It is traumatizing, and I would argue, in the vast majority of cases, it’s unnecessary,” she said.
Is it time for Florida to do away with the baker act?
“You know, that is an excellent question. I want to say that the five-year plan, and the 10-year plan, should, in fact, get very close to doing away with the Baker Act. But in order to get away from the Baker Act, eliminating the need for a Baker Act, we must invest upstream. We have to invest in our children’s mental health and fund that differently,” said Lott.
This year Mental Health America ranked Florida 49th in the nation for access to mental health care.
Earlier this year, the state legislature approved and the Governor signed a bill allocating more than 100 million dollars in recurring annual funds for mental health, a historic move for the state of Florida.