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SPLC Report Examines Excessive Use of Florida’s Mental Health Law on Children

Report reveals more than 37,000 Children Inappropriately Forced Into Psychiatric Hospitals Each Year 

FLORIDA – The excessive use of Florida’s mental health law, known as the Baker Act, has resulted in the inappropriate and illegal psychiatric hospitalization of thousands of Black and Brown children and children with disabilities each year. A shocking figure that has coincided with the drastic increase in police presence in schools across the state, according to a report released this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and several community partners. 

The report, entitled Costly and Cruel: How Misuse of the Baker Act Harms 37,000 Florida Children Each Year, explores the impact of the law on children, including those in schools and residential foster care facilities. It describes how children as young as five are handcuffed, forced into the back of police cars and transported to psychiatric hospitals, where they can be held for up to three business days without parental consent or consultation. More 37,000 children experience this trauma each year.

Florida law prohibits the use of the Baker Act on individuals who do not pose a serious threat of death or bodily harm to themselves or others. It also prohibits using the Baker Act on a person for behavior caused by a developmental disability, such as autism.

Yet, the report found that the law is routinely applied to children with developmental disabilities who are not a serious threat to themselves or others. It is also applied frequently to children who exhibit normal adolescent misbehavior or children who have a mental illness diagnosis but whose behavior could be treated in a less-restrictive setting than a psychiatric hospital. This might suggest that the law is being used as a behavior management tool and not the way the law was intended.

Consistent with state and national data about the school-to-prison pipeline, the report shows that Black children are overrepresented in the number of children who are Baker Acted. Due to implicit bias, the behavior of Black and Brown children is more likely to result in arrest and a transport to jail or a mental health hospital than their white peers. A 2020 report by the SPLC and several other groups found the heightened police presence in schools were predictive of higher rates of student arrests, particularly for Black and Brown students and students with disabilities.

“The Baker Act has effectively created a second pipeline that is pushing thousands of Black and Brown children and children with disabilities out of schools and foster care facilities each year,” said Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office and senior supervising attorney for its children’s rights practice group. “Unsurprisingly, the rate of children who are Baker Acted has coincided with the drastic increase in police in schools across the state. It is a traumatic experience for children and their caretakers who routinely are not consulted before a Baker Act is initiated. This is a travesty that must end.”

The report is a joint effort by the Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC Action Fund, Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Florida Student Power Network, The Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, Florida’s Children First, and Legal Aid of Palm Beach County. It offers specific recommendations for schools, districts, receiving facilities, law enforcement, the Florida Department of Education and the Department of Children and Families to address how the Baker Act is currently used. The report also suggests some core reforms across agencies, including:

  • Requiring schools to intervene on behalf of children with Individualized Education Programs (IEP) to prevent law enforcement from wrongfully using the Baker Act on students with disabilities;
  • Providing robust training in schools, residential facilities, and law enforcement on de-escalation methods and the Baker Act’s narrow criteria for involuntary examination;
  • Requiring consent by parents and guardians before a Baker Act is initiated;
  • Fully integrating mobile crisis teams, telehealth services and credentialed school psychologists and social workers to help de-escalate and stabilize children experiencing crises and determine whether to initiate an examination under the Baker Act;
  • Allow parents, guardians, or medical professionals to transport children to psychiatric facilities or other non-traumatic crisis stabilization units to reduce trauma;
  • Allow medical providers, not police, to make the decision to hold children in psychiatric facilities, often overnight, until they can see a physician.

“I believe it’s time to demand a change to the Baker Act and protect the 37,000 children who are involuntary put into the system each year and the traumas that are associated with it. We must speak up, we must not stay silent and we must protect our youth,” Christopher Zoeller, a Florida student organizer, said recently at a community rally for children’s rights hosted by the SPLC.

The report can be read at: https://bit.ly/3ltKlZ5.