Is Florida’s Baker Act being using too often to commit mentally ill kids? | Editorial

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board, Tampa Bay Times
·3 min read

In the 50 years since Florida’s Baker Act was passed, the law has saved countless people in mental health crisis. It’s also clear the Baker Act and how it’s enforced need updating, yet there is disagreement about whether that would best be accomplished by expanding the law or rolling it back. It’s an important debate to have, and worth taking time to study the data and impacts on Florida’s most vulnerable before changing this key pillar of mental health policy.

The Baker Act allows the temporary, involuntary commitment of someone who poses an immediate danger to themselves or others due to mental illness. It touches thousands of families every year: The Times’ Jack Evans reported in March that the law was used 211,000 times in a 12-month period between 2018 and 2019. Children accounted for 38,000 of those involuntary commitments. Baker Act intakes have been increasing year after year, and more than half are initiated by law enforcement.

That has led to kids who act up in school being led out in handcuffs and committed. It has landed with disproportionate force on other vulnerable groups, such as the homeless and those with addiction problems, creating an aura of criminality around mental illness. None of this was the intended outcome when the law was passed, nor is it working now. But how best to fix it?

Some advocates say the answer is expanding the criteria for when the law can be used, so people who need treatment can get it earlier. But others say broadening the law will only ensnare more of those vulnerable groups and lead to wrongful commitments. There’s validity in both arguments. A person should not need to be in full-blown crisis before they can access treatment. Conversely, involuntary commitments should not become even more common, especially with children.

Lawmakers considered several approaches to reform during the legislative session and made some progress. They passed a bill that sets clearer criteria and notification requirements before kids can be removed from school for involuntary examination. But other good proposals, like diverting some of the money spent on jailing mentally ill people and redirecting it to treatment programs, died during the regular legislative session, which ended Friday. Meanwhile, changes are taking place in communities that should inform the larger policy decisions. The news website Axios recently reported that police in Largo and Belleair have adopted telemedicine technology that allows officers to virtually connect citizens in mental distress with a counselor. That single encounter can de-escalate a situation and allow the person to seek voluntary help. Largo began using the technology in November and has reduced Baker Act commitments by half. More police departments are interested.

All of this should be examined in the context of Florida’s broader need to address mental health. Statewide, it is a mushrooming problem that does not receive enough attention or funding, and the Baker Act has become too much of a default. A 72-hour commitment of someone with chronic mental illness who is then released with no follow-up treatment is not a realistic solution, yet it happens again and again because of a dearth of other resources. And its impact on children should not be discounted. In 2019, the Times revealed how the law is applied disproportionately to children of color and traumatizes kids who need extra support — like those in foster care and who have disabilities.

Renewed scrutiny on how the Baker Act can better serve mentally ill Floridians is important and overdue. Time ran out in this year’s legislative session for passing major reform. While the issue should remain a high priority for 2022, lawmakers, mental health advocates and other stakeholders now have more time to best figure out how to fix Florida’s Baker Act and ensure it helps more people than it hurts.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.