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The Baker Act set out to improve care. Now it’s ensnaring more children.

The law was written in 1971 by Maxine Baker, a legislator from Miami-Dade County who pushed for the rights of people with mental illness.
Florida's Baker Act was written in 1971 by Maxine Baker, a 65-year-old grandmother and a freshman Florida legislator from Miami-Dade County, seen here in a 1965 photo. [Associated Press]
Florida's Baker Act was written in 1971 by Maxine Baker, a 65-year-old grandmother and a freshman Florida legislator from Miami-Dade County, seen here in a 1965 photo. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 10, 2019
Updated Dec. 10, 2019

The Baker Act has evolved over the last half-century, often in legislative efforts to strengthen civil rights protections for people with mental illnesses. But the law still treats adults and children in much the same way.

It was written in 1971 by Maxine Baker, a 65-year-old grandmother and a Florida legislator from Miami-Dade County. She had toured the state’s hospitals, peering through cat-eye glasses at patients locked in rooms and strapped to beds without treatment.

Florida would be better off hiring more school psychologists, says Nicholas Cutro, immediate past president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists. [Courtesy of Nicholas Cutro]

Assigned to the House’s mental health committee, Baker spent three years researching mental hospitals around the world before authoring a law that envisioned short-term care offered within the community rather than in state hospitals. The idea was that families could voluntarily check in loved ones who needed care without worrying about losing them to a state hospital. It also provided an involuntary examination process that would be conducted only as a last resort.

When the Baker Act went into effect in 1972, it was hailed as Florida’s first bill of rights for people with mental illness.

RELATED: Florida’s flawed Baker Act rips thousands of kids from school

Fast-forward to 2017, when the Legislature passed a bill stipulating that hospitals could continue to take up to three days to examine adults, while children had to be seen within 12 hours.

Left unchanged were provisions that largely treat children and adults the same when someone is taken into custody. However, the new law created a task force to find the “root causes” of increasing use of the Baker Act on children.

The 21-member panel met five times over four months in late 2017. It surveyed more than 300 people, including educators, parents, police and mental health professionals.

Recommendations followed. One suggested more mobile crisis response teams, with the goal of getting mental health counselors involved more often in possible Baker Act scenarios. Another called for the state to allow mental health professionals the right to use the Baker Act in schools.

Two task force members said there was progress, but the work was not comprehensive enough. More study — and more data — is needed.

The Legislature in 2018 allocated more than $18 million to fund mobile crisis response teams. At the time, only 12 teams existed in Florida, spread across 10 counties. That number has grown to 41.

ALSO READ: An autistic child melts down. An officer makes a decision. A family suffers the consequences.

Legislation in 2018 and 2019 following the school shooting in Parkland also included mental health funding for school districts. But those bills focused on stopping violence, with new requirements that included an armed officer at every school.

The state had underfunded mental health for years leading up to the Parkland shooting. Even now, Florida schools have, on average, one psychologist for every 2,000 students — well below the nationally recommended ratio of one for every 500 students.

One example is Hernando County, which until last year had just six social workers for 23 schools and more than 22,000 students. The district has used recent state funding to hire eight more, but some still juggle multiple campuses.

The state has its priorities wrong, said Nicholas Cutro, immediate past president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists. “It would be a better idea to try to have a school psychologist at every school than a school resource officer at every school.”

READ THE FIRST STORY IN THIS SERIES, POWERLESS: You’re trapped. They’re cashing in.

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