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Costly and Cruel: Thousands of Florida children suffer the harm and indignity of involuntary, and often illegal, commitment to psychiatric facilities

I have witnessed and survived much – from overtly racist threats at gunpoint to the everyday microaggressions by people who feel obliged to police Black bodies, words, actions and even our audacity. These assaults accumulate, at times stinging like the death of a thousand cuts, but, like most Black people living, growing and becoming in America, and especially those of us situated in the Deep South, these experiences have been so par for the course that we find ourselves often in a state of numbness. Nothing cuts deeper and stirs the soul more, however, than that moment when one witnesses the burdens and baggage of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia or their many intersectionalities placed squarely on the shoulders of a child. The rage we learn to quell and hide is not easily contained when our children are under siege.

In my journey as a parent of Black children, I have had to work hard to shield them from, or at least shore them up to be prepared for, the ever-present dangers of living while Black. The adultification of Black children in particular means they often are not seen by others as worthy or in need of the same protections, leeway, nurturing or care afforded to their peers. As I have learned firsthand, there is no greater sense of helplessness than when someone with the power to shape and wield malleable laws supplants your parental authority and demands that you relinquish your power to protect. There is no greater indignity than the force of the state intentionally and with knowledge putting your child in a dangerous place – something I have suffered through and something parents of Florida children who have been “Baker Acted” know all too well.

Today, we released a report, Costly and Cruel: How Misuse of the Baker Act Harms 37,000 Florida Children Each Year, about the outrageously prolific use of Florida’s Baker Act to involuntary commit children to psychiatric facilities for examination.

Sadly, the experience of parents and caregivers in Florida being stripped of the right to console, manage and determine the level of psychiatric treatment for their own children is not at all uncommon.

More than 37,000 times each year, children across the state have the Baker Act used against them largely by schools, police and foster care facilities. Sometimes –  for even very minor infractions and normal adolescent behavior –  they are handcuffed by police, taken in cop cars and deeply traumatized as they are carted off for days at a time to psychiatric facilities for an involuntary psychiatric exam, where they may or may not get to speak with their family.

Some of these children are as young as 5 and 6 years old. Many have developmental disabilities. And, a disproportionate number of them are Black and Brown. So, it would seem, we have effectively created yet another pipeline to push out and police our most vulnerable children and put them at greater risk of harm.

Each time I hear the story of a parent who has had to experience their own child being confronted by cops and dragged away, arrested or Baker Acted at the often-biased whim of overwhelmed educators (in schools starved for resources because legislators cannot find a collective will to fully fund them, even as they siphon precious dollars to private profiteers) I find it hard to catch my breath.

When a mother experiencing homelessness describes the indignity of being forced to Baker Act her own child or face the threat of expulsion – or worse, being reported to the Florida Department of Children and Families – my breath gets lodged in my throat. When a mother tells us that the fourth time her 7-year-old was Baker Acted, he was carried away by four armed officers, even though they had to awaken him to trigger the confrontation, I inhale deeply and hold my breath to counter the heartache. And, when a father describes that moment when he hopelessly pleads with an officer to let him drive his own young, autistic child to the Baker Act receiving facility rather than putting him alone and frightened in the back of a police car, I once again am breathless. The obvious and systemic failures cut deep. 

Baker Acting is not, as some might assume, benevolent or inconsequential. The cost to the lives of children erroneously caught in this psychiatric web is high. The cruelty of being ripped from loved ones for days at a time or forcibly sedated is indescribable. Internally, they may face trauma, long-term anxiety and fears, humiliation and a chilled sense of freedom to express their emotions out loud or to ever seek mental health care again. Externally, they miss critical time at school, may fall behind in classes, get put on lower academic tracks, find themselves labeled, targeted, overly scrutinized and ostracized, and even homeless if they are in foster care and lose their placement. Additionally, they may suffer the consequences of their caregivers’ financial losses from missed work, large medical and legal bills and even lost jobs.

We can and must do better. And, to be clear, “better” is not expanding criteria that would sweep more children into this broken system.

Better is listening to the voices of children and families who have suffered this trauma and bringing them together with advocates, educators, mental health experts and other stakeholders to craft thoughtful solutions to this complex problem, not Band-Aid fixes that ultimately will cause more harm than good. Better is funding adequate mental health resources in schools and in foster homes. Better is recognizing that children and adults are different and that laws should treat them differently. Better is removing the ambiguities in our statutes that force police officers to make assessments that should be left to mental health professionals. Better is appropriately regulating unscrupulous facilities that put profits over people and detain children unnecessarily. Better is adequate and regular training for all adults who are charged with teaching and interacting with children about appropriate and positive behavioral interventions and de-escalation techniques and exactly when it is and is not appropriate to initiate an involuntary mental health examination. Better is putting authority back in the hands of parents to make mental health decisions for their children. Better is ensuring each child gets the care that we would want for our own children and creating a world freer than the one we inherited.

Silence in the face of injustice is not neutrality; it is complicity. Meeting our civic duty to be engaged participants in our democracy begins with information and education. As such, I encourage you to read our report and learn all you can about what is happening to our children. And, then, join with us to demand that all children have access to the services and resources they need and are free from the trauma of handcuffs, police car transports, confinement and involuntary examinations that are unnecessary, inappropriate and, at times, illegal.

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