Monday, November 12, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Florida Legislature should reform Baker Act

Floridians gained an important new right under the Baker Act last week: A little-noticed new law requires schools, police officers and hospitals to notify parents when children are institutionalized for a psychiatric exam. But the Legislature should not stop there. Juvenile commitments to mental hospitals are rising rapidly amid broken families, depression and substance abuse. Authorities need new legal tools, training and funding to ensure that juvenile Baker Act commitments are appropriate and effective.

About 6,000 Tampa Bay minors were sent to mental hospitals last year for involuntary psychiatric exams under the Baker Act, up 50 percent from the previous three years. Bullying, isolation and social media pressures have contributed to a rise in suicide and depression. School officials, law enforcement officers and child welfare workers facing violent behavior are appropriately turning to psychiatric treatment in some cases instead of arresting children. But the Baker Act — which forces people into custody — has been susceptible to abuse over the years. Better methods and controls are needed to make sure Florida's troubled juveniles get the help they deserve and are not held against their will longer than the law allows.

Under the Baker Act, people thought to be mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others can be committed for up to 72 hours for a psychiatric evaluation. For longer stays, patients must check in voluntarily or the mental hospital must petition the court to hold them against their will. That triggers a judicial hearing within a few days, with the public defender's office appointed to represent the patient. These crucial hearings — overseeing a process that otherwise unfolds behind closed doors — are simply not taking place with juveniles. Either they leave the hospital before triggering a hearing or they and their parents agree to longer stays.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger says his office has attended only a handful of juvenile hearings over the last several years. He has no way to assess whether the 72-hour commitment was appropriate in the first place or whether confusion or coercion might have induced juveniles and parents to sign on for longer stays. The Legislature should change the Baker Act to give public defenders access to juveniles and medical records upon any involuntary admission. Patient privacy should remain paramount in most medical settings, but not when the power of the state forces people into care.

Schools have become a major source of juvenile Baker Act commitments, particularly as authorities try to reduce student arrests. Intensive training in crisis intervention can reduce the need for both arrests and psychiatric commitments by coaching administrators, teachers and law enforcement officers on defusing difficult encounters with students before they escalate. The Legislature recently authorized $800,000 for the Florida Sheriff's Association for crisis training, a good first step. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri notes that a rigorous one-week training program recently helped a deputy elude and calm a knife-wielding woman who in the past might have been shot. Given the rise in juvenile Baker Act hospitalizations, a similar commitment to crisis training should be applied to the school setting, where police agencies often supply security.

Even when Baker Act commitments are properly initiated and monitored, crisis stabilization is a Band-Aid solution to emotional problems. Children need ongoing counseling and outpatient mental health treatment, not a few days in a locked-down ward. Florida's shameful record on mental health spending — 49th out of 50 states — limits the state's capacity to make meaningful changes.

The parental notification requirement recently added to the Baker Act stemmed from the quirky case of a 15-year-old Jacksonville student who was bullied at school and made suicidal comments. She was sent off for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation without anyone telling her parents. Mandating parental notification was an easy legal tweak. Now legislators should embark on a more thorough overhaul of the Baker Act and Florida's overall approach to helping some of our neediest children.

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