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Police hospitalize 7-year-old under Baker Act

Barbara and Richard Smith want to know why their son, 7, was forced into a hospital.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Barbara and Richard Smith want to know why their son, 7, was forced into a hospital.

LARGO — Police this week removed an unruly 7-year-old from his classroom and forced him to be hospitalized under the state's Baker Act — against the wishes of his outraged parents.

The boy spent the night alone at Morton Plant Hospital before he was seen by a child psychologist the next day and discharged.

"This is a total abuse of police power," said the boy's father, Richard Smith, 41. "My son has no mental health problems. He's never hurt himself. He's never hurt anyone else."

Smith and his wife, Barbara, said they want to consult a lawyer.

But Largo deputy police Chief John Carroll said his officers did the right thing.

By all accounts, the second-grader threw a tantrum at Mildred Helms Elementary on Wednesday. Carroll said the boy tore up the room during his fit. In the process, he stepped on a teacher's foot and "battered" a school administrator.

Carroll said the tantrum was so bad that school officials had to evacuate students from the classroom.

School officials called the parents and police. When officers arrived, they decided the boy needed a mental health examination.

This was not the first time the boy had acted up, Carroll said, and the lead officer, Michael Kirkpatrick, decided the boy couldn't just go home again with his mother.

"He just felt that this young man needed some mental health service he wasn't getting," Carroll explained. "The Baker Act is a kind of a Band-Aid that allows us to have somebody introduced to the service providers that can actually do something for him."

Barbara Smith said she could have defused the situation had officers let her see her son. Instead, they kept her from him as they conducted their investigation, she said.

When police decided to take him to a hospital, she agreed to ride with the boy in a police car to comfort him.

The incident was terrifying for the boy, whose name is not being used by the St. Petersburg Times. Barbara Smith is keeping the boy and his 9-year-old sister out of school because they are "scared to death" to go back, she said.

The Baker Act allows people to be taken for mental health examination against their will. But it requires a person show a substantial likelihood of causing serious injury to himself or others.

Absent that, police cannot use the Baker Act to take someone into custody against their will, even if they think the person needs help, said Raine Johns, who handles Baker Act cases for the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office.

"That's not the purpose of the Baker Act at all," said Johns, who is not involved in the case. "Stepping on somebody's foot doesn't rise to the level of substantial bodily harm."

Martha Lenderman, a Pinellas-based Baker Act expert, said a child can be taken against parents' wishes, but only if he meets all the criteria.

Johns said she has seen children as young as 7 taken into custody under the Baker Act before, but usually it's voluntary.

Pinellas schools police report they have been involved in 83 Baker Acts from the beginning of the school year to the start of this week. That does not include any handled by other police agencies.

School Board member Peggy O'Shea said she didn't think that sounded like a large number given the 105,000 students in Pinellas schools.

School board member Janet Clark noted there were several other Baker Acts in Pinellas schools that day. She plans to raise the issue with the superintendent.

School officials said a region superintendent has agreed to meet with the Smiths and the principal.

Carroll said the it's not as if police officers enjoy taking kids into custody.

"We look like the big tough cops with the tiny kid," he said.

But in the case of this boy, it was justified.

"The child got interviewed by mental health professionals," he said. "He didn't get arrested. There's no criminal charges against him."

Richard Smith and his wife are not sure of their next step.

"We can't just sweep this under the carpet," she said. "We do want to talk to a lawyer. … Our main goal is to make sure this does not happen to another family."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Police hospitalize 7-year-old under Baker Act 02/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 10:18am]
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