New Law Seeks to Lower Number of Baker Act Incidents
by MARY TOOTHMAN
When state Rep. David Silvers heard about one child’s horrific experience as she was taken into custody under Florida’s Baker Act, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. A news story about the circumstances haunted him.
The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows people to be involuntarily committed to mental health hospitals.
As Silvers, D-West Palm Beach, began to research and learn more about the Baker Act and its impact on children, he knew he had to do something. More than 35,000 children were taken in under the Baker Act in 2017 and of 2018.
Silvers hopes House Bill 945 — which was signed into law and went into effect July 1 — will lower that number.
Silvers sponsored the House bill, which in part asks schools to take initial steps to defuse certain types of situations instead of calling police. It also calls for mobile response units and crisis stabilization services to be utilized before the Baker Act is instituted.
“It is a very robust piece of Legislature,” Silvers says. “It brings in some accountability.”
Silvers says children should not be taken in under the Baker Act without more assessment and thought.
“It is very traumatic. Here you are, a child, and you are taken away from your family, from your friends, and often do not understand why or what is happening.
“Basically, with this process, we can try to weed out some of the unnecessary uses of the Baker Act. Things like this stay with you a long time; they cause you long-term harm.”
“The goal is to protect children from additional trauma — like the use of the Baker Act — while offering a safe environment for children, as well as their classmates and teachers,” Silver says.
“We have a responsibility to ensure our schools, teachers, administrators and others have access to the support and services needed for children and youth in our schools struggling with mental and behavioral health challenges,” Silvers said.
The law is designed to make a better network of services from different sources to create a “coordinated system of care” for children and young adults. The principal would also be required to “verify that de-escalation strategies” had been used before contacting law enforcement.
A key part of the law calls for mobile response teams, or on-demand crisis intervention services, offered by health care operators that can be provided anytime, anywhere.
The law requires school principals and other personnel to contact one of those teams before they notify law enforcement that a student is in crisis — unless the principal “reasonably believes” that the delay in removing the student from school would “increase the likelihood of harm to the student or others.”
Lawmakers from all across the Legislature are invested in improving student mental health services for different reasons. Silvers says Republican lawmakers have requested his help in writing bills for them addressing mental health issues. “Mental health is an issue we all have concerns about,” he says.
The 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 dead and 17 others injured in Parkland, Florida, forced a new focus on student mental health by the Legislature.
Lawmakers acknowledged that they had failed to provide enough mental health resources in schools. The shooting was just one of the reasons lawmakers moved to improve mental health services for Florida’s children during the 2020 legislative session.
A special task force was established by the Florida Legislature in 2017, to address the issue that the number of involuntary examinations of minors 17 and under had gone way up. In fact, it showed that between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, the number of minors involuntarily examined increased by 49.3 percent — compared with a 5.53 rise in the state’s population.
Polk County School Board Member Billy Townsend says he is in support of any measure that takes a student’s mental health into consideration.
“Generally, I am for anything in education that tends to look at the human development of a student — not as a tool to measure data. I am encouraged by a renewed focus on the mental health — the humanity — of our students.”