A parent's nightmare
Across Florida, parents are becoming more outspoken about their kids' private experiences about being sent for involuntary psychiatric exams without their knowledge.
"I got to see them carry my handcuffed child into a facility," said a teary-eyed Sandy Liebl who spoke with ABC Action News in Tampa in February after her 10-year-old autistic son was handcuffed and taken to a mental health facility from his school in January.
"He's traumatized and afraid of everyone," Sande Butler told us in 2016 after her autistic 7-year-old son was also Baker Acted at school.
"It's very traumatizing," said Kathy Lovejoy. Since August, Lovejoy said her grandson was taken from school, handcuffed and transported to a mental health facility two times. In both cases, she said, doctors determined her grandson did not meet the criteria for the Baker Act.
Her grandson is 10, born with fetal alcohol syndrome and is autistic.
"That's a neurological problem," Kathy explained. "He doesn't have a mental illness, which is part of the criteria to Baker Act him."
Kathy's grandson is among a growing number of Florida children Baker Acted, a state law which lets police, judges and doctors order people who appear to be mentally ill and pose a danger to themselves or others for an involuntary psychiatric exam.
In partnership with the Baker Act Reporting Center at the de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, we analyzed the latest numbers and discovered over the past 5 years, the number of involuntary examinations given to kids in Florida under the Baker Act is up by more than 20% from 26,831 in FY2012/2013 to 32,757 in FY2016/2017.
And that's just the beginning.
Take a look at the numbers we requested from the Baker Act Reporting Center
Baker Acted kids, by the numbers
Last year alone, 114 involuntary examinations were done on children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old according to the Baker Act Reporting Center. While that number is down from 5 years earlier, every other age group is up.
Nearly 20% more involuntary examinations were given to teens 14- 17 years old, 30% more for pre-teens, or children 11-13 years old.
And last year, 2,227 involuntary psychiatric exams were given to children between 6 and 10 years old, a 40% increase in just five years.
According to the Baker Act Reporting Center, not all involuntary examinations result in admissions.
The Baker Act at school
"Is there a problem when it comes to the Baker acting of children," asked investigative reporter Katie LaGrone.
"There's a huge problem," said Diane Stein President of the Citizen Commission on Human Rights, a non-profit watchdog group that often fields calls from frustrated parents whose children have been Baker Acted without their knowledge.
"The Baker Act kind of becomes a knee jerk solution for schools in order to handle these types of situations when they don't know exactly what to do with the child," Stein said.
According to the Baker Act Reporting Center, during FY 2015/2016, 22% of involuntary examinations for people under the age of 18 indicated they were at school at the time the Baker Act was initiated. However, the Center's Director, Dr. Annette Christy believes this is an under count since the question was left blank on many of the required forms filled out by children/guardians who were Baker Acted. According to Christy, the school could also be involved in a Baker Act exam initiation but the child was not at school at the time the Baker Act was initiated.
Take a look at the statewide numbers in this chart below when it comes to Baker Acts and children in Florida. Then scroll down towards the end of the article to see a county by county breakdown.
Baker Act policies are set by individual school districts.
Just last month, Miami-Dade schools revised its Baker Act policies after video of a 7-year-old taken from school in handcuffs went viral.
The search for alternatives
The overall increase in the number of children involuntarily examined under the Baker Act is a statewide-problem Florida's top leaders are aware of.
Last year, a state-funded taskforce spent five months dissecting what's behind the surge in Baker Acted kids.
"There's no single root cause for this dramatic increase," said Derek McCarron, a taskforce member and Director of the Children's Crisis Center at Gracepoint Wellness & Behavioral Center in Hillsborough County.
"Sometimes decisions are made based on what's readily available to de-escalate the situation and sometimes the Baker Act is that option. Is that the right option at the right time? The only person writing it would be able to tell you," McCarron said.
In November, the taskforce released its final report which included a series of recommendations to encourage alternatives to the Baker Act when it comes to children. Recommendations included expanding access to outpatient treatment, provide more funding for early intervention and expand the list of people qualified to initiate a Baker Act at school to include school psychologists. Currently police, judges and physicians are the only professionals who can initiate a Baker Act.
But first, Kathy Lovejoy wants to see the law change from requiring schools contact parents after a Baker Act is initiated to before.
"Allow me to de-escalate him. I'm the parent, I'm the one who knows him best," she said.
The Baker Act Reporting Center has received and entered data from over 2 million paper involuntary examination forms into an electronic database since 1997.
More specifics about data reporting requirements within the Baker Act and the Baker Act data can be found at the Baker Act Reporting Center website.