TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — From 2019 to 2020, 202,600 people were involuntarily examined for mental illness safety concerns. More colloquially, it’s known as “Baker Acting” someone. Almost 18% of those Baker Acted in the 2019-2020 fiscal year were children, according to data from the Florida government.

The Baker Act, or the Florida Mental Health Act, has been on the books since 1971. According to the Florida Department of Children and Families’ history of the Baker Act, “Provide comprehensive services for persons requiring intensive short-term and continued treatment” and “Provide emergency service and temporary detention for evaluation when required.”

The DCF says in its history of the law that they must use the least restrictive means of intervention, depending on what each person needs. This is applied to all ages of patients.

The DCF Baker Act annual report, compiled by the University of South Florida, reported there were nearly 36,000 children involuntarily examined in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. While it was a 5% decrease from 2018-2019, it was a 10.8% increase from 2015. The USF report goes back to the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Children who were Baker Acted was measured at 17.75% of all exams in the 2019 to 2020 examination year. The report also states the number of cases dropped at “the beginning of the pandemic” in Spring 2020, showing a sharp decrease from March to April, before increasing in May and June 2020.

A separate report published by DCF said 24% of minors had multiple involuntary examinations in the 2019 fiscal year. These “repeated involuntary examinations,” account for thousands of children.

“More than 3,000 minors had two involuntary exams and a little more than 1,000 had three involuntary exams,” according to the DCF report. “The number of individuals decreased as the number of exams increased and the total count of exams decreased.”

By county, the USF report shows how many individual involuntary exams were undertaken. For Tampa Bay counties, a total of 27,908 involuntary exams occurred.

The report continued, saying that in the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year, 24,171 minors were involuntarily examined. It said most of the exams of minors occurred outside of school settings. The report’s data said 18,378 of the minors who were examined under the Baker Act were subject to multiple exams.

Broken down by county, the following data shows the proportion of involuntary exams for minors occurred in Tampa Bay counties.

County% of Involuntary Exams of Minors
State of Florida17.75%
(Baker Act Reporting Center FY 2019-2020 Annual Report)

According to DCF, not all counties in Florida have the same resources. To some extent, the agency said differences in involuntary exam rates are lower than others for “complex reasons.”

“About half of Florida’s 67 counties have at least one Baker Act receiving facility and the others do not have any,” DCF said. “Areas of some counties are geographically distant from the nearest receiving facility.

DCF said additional factors that may influence use of involuntary exams include:

  • Number of people trained in Mental Health First Aid
  • Law enforcement training, including Crisis Intervention Training (CIT)
  • Availability of criminal justice system diversion programs at all sequential intercepts, including those funded by Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse (CJMHSA) Reinvestment Grants
  • Availability and quality of community-based behavioral health services, including Mobile Response Teams (MRTs), Florida Assertive Community Treatment (FACT) and Community Action Treatment (CAT) Teams
  • Availability of a wide array of social services, such as assistance with housing, coverage for health care, and existence of county funds for those who are underinsured or uninsured
  • How facilities approach the admission status (voluntary or involuntary) for children based on the logistics of holding the required voluntariness hearing for children

While exams are supposed to be initiated and performed by specific professionals, including law enforcement and clinical psychologists, a lawsuit begun in Palm Beach County argues that the state of Florida instead uses Baker Act exams to take children from schools to mental health institutions, rather than simply let them “calm down.”

The suit, representing a group of students and families and including the Southern Poverty Law Center, started in June 2021. It alleges the school district uses school resource officers and police officers to “without parental consent, take hundreds of children from their classrooms, put them in handcuffs,” and take them to psychiatric hospitals in patrol cars.

“Some of these children are as young as five,” the lawsuit reads. It also alleges the school district “causes this routine abuse through explicit and customary policies that encourage” Baker Act use via inaccurate training of personnel and a failure to train or monitor how district staff use the provisions of the Baker Act.

The involuntary examination of minors is dependent on several factors. By law, to determine if an individual may be examined under the Baker Act, they must show signs or reason for others to believe they have a mental illness, and as a result have:

  • Individual refused voluntary examination after conscientious explanation and disclosure of purpose or the individual is unable to determine if the exam is needed.
  • Without care or treatment, the individual will be neglected or will not care for themself, causing a “real and present threat of substantial harm to their well-being” and others, without help of their community or services.
  • There is a “substantial” possibility an individual will cause serious bodily harm to themselves or others in the near future, based on recent behavior.

Once a Baker Act involuntary exam is deemed necessary, an examination process must be initiated by a court, law enforcement, or qualified mental health professional. State statutes require individuals be taken into custody by law enforcement to be delivered to a facility for examination. The exam itself must be done by a physician, clinical psychologist, psychiatric nurse, mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, or clinical social worker.

“The statutorily established examination period is for up to 72 hours,” according to DCF. “However, for minors, once a Baker Act determination is made, the clinical examination to determine if the criteria for involuntary services are met must be initiated within the first 12 hours of their arrival at the facility.”

The SPLC lawsuit, along with co-plaintiffs Disability Rights Florida, the Florida State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the parents of children examined under Baker Act provisions, outlines these causes for examination, then refutes them, saying the Baker Act is used “at an incredibly high and increasing rate,” and that 323 children were involuntarily examined in Palm Beach County in the 2019 school year.

Some, younger than 9-years-old, “were examined 17 times” in the same year. At the time they filed their lawsuit, SPLC’ study of Baker Act practices with minors in Florida said nearly 38,000 children had been “inappropriately forced into psychiatric hospitals,” ever year. SPLC, in speaking with WFLA.com, estimated about 25-50% of the minors Baker Acted, occur in schools. Their report on the Baker Act reflects the same estimate.

While COVID-19 slowed down the number of minors Baker Acted somewhat, based on the USF report published on behalf of the State of Florida, a drop of roughly 2,000 only amounts to roughly a 5% drop.

WFLA.com has reached out to the Florida Department of Education for more updated information and statistics centered on Baker Act practice and usage in the state for minors and at schools, as well as the Palm Beach County School District regarding the lawsuit underway.