BROOKSVILLE — When BayCare closed its stabilization unit at the Harbor 18 months ago, it left the county without a place for children taken into protective custody — and with a potentially serious problem.
Springbrook Hospital became Hernando's only receiving site for Baker Act patients, and it was not licensed to provide in-patient services to minors.
Now, mental health officials say, hospitals are working though the problems and conditions have improved for these young patients.
The state's Baker Act allows people to be taken into custody for mental health examinations if they appear likely to cause serious injury to themselves or others.
Springbrook can serve only as a temporary holding facility for minors and now they are experiencing shorter wait times before being transferred to facilities outside of the county, said Springbrook administrator Mike Hogan.
The hospital has also hired a licensed clinical child psychologist to see young patients to determine their needs and decide if it was necessary for them to be taken into protective custody in the first place.
"We get the patients evaluated sooner and can reverse the Baker Act if necessary," Hogan said.
Hernando County gives matching funds to the Harbor for crisis care and other services. When BayCare officials announced they would close the Harbor's crisis unit on Grove Road in order to focus on outpatient services, they agreed to work with Springbrook to place minor or indigent Baker Act patients at other BayCare facilities such as Morton Plant North Bay in New Port Richey.
Between Jan. 31, 2012 and the end of the year, Springbrook admitted 301 juveniles.
The average stay before transfer for a juvenile patient at Springbrook has dropped from 10 to 12 hours to about seven or eight, Hogan said.
He said BayCare is doing a better job of accepting patients sooner at its other facilities.
"The change is evident," Hogan said. "I think they brushed up on their processes a little bit."
Cooperation from BayCare is critical to both patients' well-being and Springbrook's business, Hogan said. Springbrook is responsible for transporting patients, and if BayCare's facilities are full, Springbrook takes young patients to facilities as far away as Ocala.
BayCare officials insist they have always worked to keep their promise.
"We've done nothing different, other than to make sure we communicate effectively," said Gail Ryder, BayCare's vice president of behavioral health. "When you work together for longer, you create relationships. Maybe that's the thing that made the difference."
Springbrook saw 103 juvenile Baker Act patients in the first four months of this year. Many came from the schools and were ultimately released.
At a monthly Baker Act committee meeting last week, Springbrook's director of clinical services Vijaya Siddalingappa wondered if the schools could do a better job of screening children before calling the Hernando Sheriff's Office to place them in protective custody.
"It's pretty traumatizing for those young ones to show up in a cop car," Siddalingappa said.
Administrators and school counselors are trained to err on the side of caution when a student threatens to hurt himself or makes other troubling statements, said Betty Harper, the district's student services coordinator.
Though the Baker Act situation has improved, the need for expanded mental services in Hernando remains clear, officials say.
In February and March, Springbrook exceeded its capacity, prompting a warning from the state Agency for Health Care Administration. The agency has expressed a willingness to work with Springbrook given the limited resources in Hernando.
Ultimately, officials say, Hernando needs its own crisis unit for adults and both inpatient and outpatient resources for kids and adults.
"Compared to a year ago, we're doing better by the children by far, and I think we're doing better by the adults," Hogan said, "but we have a long way to go."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.