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Southern Poverty Law Center Reports On Child Baker Act Use

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More than 37,000 children were sent for involuntary psychiatric exams in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The number has grown every year for the past decade. Lawmakers are aware of it. So are advocates, law enforcement and state agencies. Legislative solutions remain elusive and proposals on the Baker Act this year appear to be going nowhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center is the latest organization to call out the Baker Act’s use on children. WFSU News Director Lynn Hatter recently spoke with the SPLC Children's Rights Attorney Bacardi Jackson about the organization’s findings.

Key Takeaways:

  • Florida is an outlier in its use of the Baker Act on children
  • Florida has more police in its schools than nurses, therapists and counselors
  • Children with disabilities and minority kids are at greater risk of being Baker Acted
  • There is a false belief that the Baker Act is less harmful than arrest
  • Parents have little to no say when their child is Baker Acted
  • Law enforcement’s role in initiating the Baker Act should be reduced
  • Advocates and legislators are divided on how to address the problem

Q: How did we get to the point where we're now above 37,000 kids being sent for involuntary psychiatric exams? Are more children displaying signs of mental and emotional distress, or is this something that's policy related?

A: You know, it is a great question. I'm glad you asked it. When we took a look across the nation … and we mentioned the numbers at which we [Florida] Baker Act, children, everyone that we spoke to literally, [it was] jaw dropping shock. This is unlike anything we've seen across the country anywhere else. For states that collect this data, Florida is a far cry above [them]. So it would seem odd indeed, that Florida would somehow have some greater number of children who are so distressed that they cause an imminent and serious risk of harm to themselves or others at such greater rates than anywhere around the country.

This is not an intervention or remedy that should just be used when children have some emotional concern. It is really, really supposed to be used only rarely and in those circumstances where there is evidence and specific actions that support the finding that there is an imminent risk of serious bodily harm. And so, that is not how it's being used. I do think it is both a function of policy, but also of practice. One of the things that we have seen -- and we also did a report in conjunction with the ACLU about the cost of school policing -- is that as we have increased the number of officers in our schools, and as we have created a greater ‘law and order’ climate in our schools, we have seen every indicia of policing and arresting, including our children increase. We've seen an increase in expulsions and suspensions, we've seen an increase in arrest, we've seen an increase in Baker Acts. So, part of that is just, how we decide to use our resources? We have more police officers in our schools than we have school nurses, we have almost twice as many police officers in our schools, then we have school psychologists. So, when you look at how we spend our resources, along with the culture, we've created of fear. This his starts to explain why we are seeing these drastic increases in in our numbers of children being Baker Acted.

Q: There are a lot of people looking and giving this issue more attention. We've even seen legislative proposals, specifically from Democratic senator Lauren Book, who has a Baker Act rewrite proposal back for the second year in a row, and another from Republican Senator Gayle Harrell, who has a bill that deals with some of the reporting and the data issues that you all have mentioned in your report. Why have these bills not been able to get through the legislature?

A: Well, I'll start off by saying there's certainly not agreement as to all of these bills. There are many advocates who are very concerned about the expansion of the Baker Act criteria that's in Sen. Book’s bill, which would include property damage as a criteria. It would also include if people don't follow doctor's advice or medical advice, which are two things that even the Department of Children and Families and the administrator of the courts have predicted will increase the number of Baker acts as they have [noted] in their reports to Senator Book’s committee (Senate Children and Families) ... So, there is absolutely not agreement among advocates, that that is necessarily a bill that will address the systemic problems we're seeing with children. There certainly are some good provisions in the bill as it relates to changing some of the language that makes it clear to police officers, for instance, that they don't have to Baker Act a child just because they get called. But You know, any legislation that is being proposed, we would strongly suggest that the stakeholders who are most impacted should be in the room and should be centered in that legislation. And that is certainly not always the case.

Q: How would you like to see this issue move forward?

A: Well, in our report, we have recommendations for the various levels of policymakers, we make recommendations for school districts for the Department of Children and Families, because this is also an issue that affects many, many children who are in the foster care system. We make recommendations for, you know, the various levels of stakeholders who could impact how children are being treated for police departments and, and others who are interacting with our children. So we would love to see everyone first and foremost educating themselves about this issue. And for us, that means that they are educating themselves about what happens to children when they experience the Baker Act. That's not something that seems to be widely known because some people think that they are doing children a favor by giving them some sort of mental health services, or some people think they are doing them a favor because they think this is an alternative to arrest. But if they were to understand the deep trauma that children experience when they get Baker Acted, those myths would hopefully be dispelled. So we think it's hugely important, first and foremost, for people to educate themselves to bring the stakeholders who are most impacted to the table to understand … what is happening to children [and] what the long term consequences are, which is also something we should be tracking.

We should understand that schools should be following what happens to a child in terms of their academic performance in terms of their attendance, in terms of their willingness to be at school. If they have gone through this experience. What we have heard, at least anecdotally is, is that it [the Baker Act] has a deep impact on a child's academic career, and it is deeply disruptive to that, if not entirely harmful. So, we do believe that first and foremost that that needs to happen. Secondly, there's some things that could be easily addressed and should be addressed and legislation. We would propose and suggest that there is an entirely separate section in the Mental Health Act directly related to children, children and adults are not the same and should not be treated the same legislatively. We also can easily address and change in the law, how children are transported, children should not be transported in police cars in handcuffs; we can provide alternatives that parents could take their own children if needed to a facility. The other really big change we would love to see is that police officers are not the ones making a decision about whether or not a child meets the criteria to be Baker acted. That is a decision that should be made by a mental health provider…We also think it's important to center the rights of parents to consent to, and to be informed about, everything that's happening to their child. And we need to make sure that those laws that were put together to protect patients are actually being enforced.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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