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Baker Acted kids still on the rise, especially among younger children new state data shows

Baker Acted kids increased 10% from year prior
Posted: 7:12 PM, Aug 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-02 20:02:45-04
BAKER ACTED MINORS IN OUR AREA
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April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, Pinellas County
April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, Pinellas County
Florida Senator Gayle Harrell (R- Stuart)

TAMPA, Fla. — If the Parkland school shooting helped bring attention to the topic of Florida kids in mental crisis, new state data is revealing just how many children were singled out at needing help.

According to the University of South Florida Baker Act Reporting Center , during the same fiscal year (FY17/18) the state experienced its deadliest school shooting in history, more kids were Baker Acted than ever before in the state. More than 36,000 kids under the age of 18 were sent for involuntary psychiatric evaluations under the state’s Baker Act law, according to the newly released data . The numbers represent a10 percent increase from one year prior, despite a less than one percent population growth among minors during the same time.

The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows designated professionals, including law enforcement, judges, doctors or a mental health professional, to initiate an involuntary mental health examination on a person or child who exemplifies a mental illness by displaying behavior that poses a threat to themselves or others. When it comes to children, most Baker Acts are initiated at school.

The Florida Investigative Team

One Southwest Florida mother, who we’re not identifying by name to protect her child, believes her son’s behavior did not warrant him being Baker Acted from school earlier this year.

“I felt like it was a form of punishment. My child does have ADD, ADHD and anxiety disorder,” she explained. According to a sheriff’s report, her son was depressed and “pulled strips of paper around his neck and placed his hands on his neck." When questioned by his teacher, the boy reportedly said he was “attempting to choke himself.”

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Her son is 8 years old, was a on an IEP plan or education plan for kids with special needs, and the Baker Act, his mom believes, wasn’t necessary. When asked how the school should have handled her son’s behavior, the mom replied, “I think they should have called me.” The young boy's mother also works for the school district with special needs children.

“There needs to be more training. Just because a person has on record mental health issues, isn’t a death sentence. It doesn’t mean they’re trying to harm themselves. You just need to give them a little more attention, a little more space sometimes and work with the child not against the child,” the boy’s mother told us.

BAKER ACTED MINORS IN OUR AREA
BAKER ACTED MINORS IN OUR AREA

According to the state report , more than 14,000 minors that were Baker Acted during fiscal year 2017/2018 were children 13 and younger, a 17 percent increase in younger children from a year earlier.

“I think those numbers are the scariest numbers of all,” said April Lott, Chief Executive Officer of Directions for Living, a Pinellas County non-profit that works with families in crisis.

Lott was also a member of the state’s Baker Act Task Force, which was commissioned by lawmakers in 2017 and signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott to study why so many kids in Florida were being Baker Acted. Over the last decade, the number of Florida children Baker Acted increased nearly 55 percent.

April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, Pinellas County
April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, Pinellas County

Lott believes the Baker Act is being overused in Florida. When reporter Katie LaGrone asked if she thought latest data suggested the task force had any impact on improving the frequency of children being Baker Acted, Lott responded, “Well, it would suggest that we haven’t had an impact, right? The numbers are going up,” she said.

But Lott also cautions that’s it’s too early to draw a final conclusion. A few months after the task forced issued its final report recommending alternatives to the Baker Act, the Parkland shooting happened. The latest state data available does not breakdown the frequency of Baker Acts by month, so it remains unclear how the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb, 14, 2018 impacted the frequency of children being Baker Acted. Shortly after the shooting, several counties, including Broward County, where the school shooting took place, reported a surge in Baker Acts.

“We’re asking adults to pay attention to more and more things and the more they pay attention to those things, I think the more children are Baker Acted,” Lott explained in response to the increase.

Among the recommendations issued by the state's Baker Act Task Force was to require schools notify parents before a Baker Act is initiated on a child, not after, which is what the current law requires.

“I think we absolutely need a policy that we are working with parents every step of the way,” said Lott.

April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, Pinellas County
April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living, Pinellas County

In 2018, a bill that would have mandated earlier parent notification died in the Legislature. Florida Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Republican Senator who represent parts of the Treasure Ccoast, served on the committee that filed the bill.

“Moving forward, I would anticipate that there may be further legislation around this topic, but it has to be carefully constructed so the child’s best interest is always first,” said Harrell.

It’s a delicate balance but one, Harrell says, the state is committed to as the number of children in crisis across Florida remains a crisis.

Florida Senator Gayle Harrell (R- Stuart)
Florida Senator Gayle Harrell (R- Stuart)

If you have a tip on the state's mental health system, contact Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone by filling out the form below.

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