With a dramatic increase in the number of children being taken in for involuntary psychiatric examinations, a state panel Thursday began looking to address the “Baker Act” issue.
More than 32,000 children were subject to examinations under Florida's Baker Act during the 2015-16 fiscal year, an increase of nearly 50 percent statewide over five years. Six counties saw increases of more than 100 percent over the same period.
In Northwest Florida, the number of individuals taken for involuntary psychiatric examinations was down at 2,428 with about 21 percent being under the age of 18. The previous fiscal year saw 2,510 involuntarily evaluated.
Washington County's numbers are slightly up overall from previous fiscal year, but the percentage of children treated saw a slight decrease. For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, about 203 were involuntarily evaluated in Washington County, with about 20 percent of those being under the age of 18. In 2014-2015, there were 174 treated, with about 24 percent of that number being children.
Under the Baker Act, people can be held against their will for up to 72 hours, until doctors determine whether they will likely hurt themselves or others. Legislation passed this year required minors to be seen within 12 hours of arriving at facilities. It also created the Task Force on Involuntary Examination of Minors within the Department of Children and Families to address the issue. That group held its first meeting Thursday in Tallahassee.
April Lott, CEO of Directions For Living, a community mental-health agency in Pinellas County, said many people don't know how to help children and see the Baker Act as their only option. She said mental-health services, behavioral-health services and intensive family services often aren't accessible.
“It's not available to everybody,” Lott said. “Then they get at their wits end, and teachers, parents, and other caregivers don't know what to do other than to use the Baker Act system.”
John Bryant, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the Department of Children and Families, said he thinks more resources are needed to help address issues before they get out of control.
“One of the recommendations might be that we supplement the activities and the level of professional staff that are available to address these problems within the public school system,” Bryant said.
Washington County News editor Carol Kent Wyatt contributed to this report.