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Florida's involuntary commitment laws get some long-needed updates

two profiles with a heart in a head.
Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media
two profiles with a heart in a head.

For years, mental health advocates have been trying to get the state to re-examine its laws around involuntary psychiatric commitment—and while the legislature has, in the past—taken some incremental steps—this year marks the biggest change yet. Still, say some who practice in the area—the work to reduce the number of people being committed against their will, isn’t over.

The version of the bill that passed targets two key issues that have continued to vex mental health advocates—how people are transported to facilities, and whether they can commit themselves.

The Baker Act is the section of law written to allow a person to be involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation, while the Marchman Act is similar and deals directly with substance abuse. Historically, law enforcement has been the only entity allowed to transport people who may need to be Baker Acted—it’s an issue that’s led to many high-profile cases of children as young as five being taken from schools in the back of police cars. Under the legislature’s change—law enforcement can now decide whether such transport is necessary. The other big change allows parents of minors to skip a court review and voluntarily check their children into facilities as long as parent and child agree.

This is big, said Melanie Brown-Woofter.

“Our hope is that this is a step to modernize the Baker Act," Brown-Woofter said in an interview with WFSU.

She is president of the Florida Behavioral Health association—the advocacy arm that supports the state’s mental health hospitals and community centers.

“What we see overall with the bill is that it helps to break the stigma and reduce the fear of parents to bring their child or loved one in for this situation. It turns it into a medical decision and takes it out of the courts’ hands," she said.

The idea behind that change is to treat mental health emergencies just as a physical one that could send someone to an emergency room. Advocates hope the change will lead more families to reach out for help on their own.

“I think the changes that were made are good changes, and I am glad they happened and I do think they can make a difference," said Dr. Michael Shapiro, a psychiatrist and member of the Florida Psychiatric Society.

Shapiro said he is pleased to see the language around who can transport people, change but wants to push that a bit further.

“For most kids with a medical emergency who we are trying to help, we don’t call the police on them and we don’t put them in the back of a police car. But I think that will take a little more time and we will work with the legislators this summer and come back next year.” 

Shapiro also wants to see parents be able to have more interactions with their children if their kids are in a psychiatric hospital—something that doesn’t happen now.

“Because psychiatric hospitals are locked facilities and emphasize safety first, they tend to separate kids from families and leads to the stigma, and a lot of parents feel left out of the process," Shapiro said.

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. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.