Committed: Florida’s Children Victims Of Dysfunctional Baker Act System
Each day in Florida, about 100 kids are involuntarily committed for psychiatric exams under the state's Baker Act. The law was not designed for children, yet over the past few years, the number of minors taken for mental health evaluations has increased. The issue is drawing more scrutiny from child advocates and lawmakers. But solutions to the problem aren’t easy. The reasons why children are committed are often complex. What happens when the state decides to commit a child? Who is most at-risk and why are they being Baker Acted, and is there long-term fallout? This series explores what happens when kids get committed.
The body camera video is a bit shaky — but clear. School officials stand outside in a breezeway talking to two police officers. Between them stands a little girl wearing a pink shirt with a rainbow on it. Her light-brown curly hair is piled in a high ponytail on her head. The police ask the school officials if they need to sign anything. They don't. So, one of the Jacksonville police officers turns to the little girl, Nadia.
“Am I going to jail now?" Nadia asks. No, the officer says.
“You’re not no bad person, you are not going to jail," the officer replies.
Nadia King is 6-years-old. Ahead of the call to the police, her teachers said she had been disruptive in class, throwing things, attacking teachers and running out of the building. The officers, who have come to take Nadia to a mental health facility though, are perplexed. Once away from the school officials, they talk among themselves.
“I don’t see her acting how they said," one officer, a woman, says. "She’s been very pleasant … I think they’re pushing the button."
Her partner, a male officer agrees. “You poke the bear one too many times …”
“Yes," the female officer says. "Cause they said this is the fourth out of five days she’s been acting like this. Well, I think maybe it’s ya’ll.”
Ya'll, as in, the school officials.
Because by the time the officers arrive at Love Grove Elementary School in Jacksonville, Nadia is calm. She even asks the female officer if there’s any candy.
“No baby, I don’t have snacks. But I will have some next time," she said.
Nadia's family had returned a day or two prior from a funeral in Ohio. Her great-grandmother died and Martina Faulk, Nadia’s mother, says she talked to the school before her daughter went back.
“I get a call from a person in child guidance and he just told me I needed to meet my daughter at Riverpoint Behavioral Health," Falk said. "They said she was out of control, she threw a tantrum."
The Child Guidance Center is a non-profit that contracts with to the Duval County School District to respond to mental health calls. That team made the decision to invoke the Baker Act — a state law that allows people to be sent and held for involuntary psychiatric exams. Faulk had no say.
“I called my mom and I called the advocate and they met me at the center … I had no idea they could do that, under a Baker Act," she said.
When Faulk made it to the hospital where Nadia was taken, she thought she could explain the situation and get her daughter back.
“I disclosed everything," she said. "When I realized they wouldn’t let me take her home, I told them she’s got ADHD, she’s developmentally delayed. I told them the medication she was taking, told them my concerns."
In response, Faulk says the the hospital told her she could come back and visit her daughter later that night, but Nadia would be held for 48 hours.
Leaving, Faulk said, was excruciating. It was even worse for Nadia, who was too young to understand what was happening, or why, she said.
"She was distraught," Faulk said. "She was crying, ‘Mommy I want to go home. Mommy I want to go home.'"
She wouldn’t see Nadia for two days.
Nadia's story reverberated around the county. It made Time Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post. State and local media, too. But Nadia is just one child.
36,000 Florida Kids Baker Acted
Each year in Florida, 36,000 children are committed under the Baker Act. Many are taken away in the back of police cars. Parents get little say in what happens to their child, though they’re supposed to under state law. And in many cases, the experience does more harm than good. The Baker Act doesn’t distinguish between kids and adults and it wasn’t designed with children in mind. Yet, they make up the fastest growing group of people sent for involuntary psychiatric evaluation, and their numbers have doubled since the state first started tracking commitments under the Baker Act in 1997.
When Faulk got her daughter back, she noticed Nadia was different. The family is still trying to determine out what happened over those two days.
“Do those teachers know what happens next when a child goes through these facilities?" said Reganel Reeves, the family's attorney. "Do they know what the experience will be? Is there a remedy … or is this just a way to get rid of this child for the day? Because we’re tired of this child," Reeves said. "So I think that’s the problem. And because of what happened next, there’s more trauma for the child.”
Nadia now has nightmares, Faulk said.
She was given a shot of something, Reeves said, though he and Faulk aren’t sure what it was. Her mother said she was sent for group counseling sessions, which she doesn’t believe were age appropriate.
The decision to send Nadia for an involuntary psychiatric assessment was made by a mental health counselor who decided she was a threat to herself or others. That’s one of the three standards for invoking an involuntary exam. It’s also the most commonly used justification for using the Baker Act.
The experience has left Martina Faulk feeling enraged and helpless. From the moment Nadia was taken to the two days that followed she said she felt like there was nothing she could do.
"I feel like I failed to protect my daughter," Faulk said. "Because these people just took her.”
Faulk chose the school because of their mental health services, she said. She trusted the school and even joined the PTA.
Nadia trusted her teachers too, Faulk said. When she saw the body camera video, Faulk said she felt betrayed all over again.
“I felt like there was more to the story than what was told," Faulk said. "That they were painting a picture of my child who -- she can’t control she has a disability. She can’t help it. I was very disappointed, and hurt.”
Nadia now attends a private school. The Duval County Public School District declined to be interviewed for this story.
A 2017 state report from a task force looking into the use of the Baker Act on children found 30% of referrals for involuntary examinations were unnecessary. Subsequent reports from the state show kids with disabilities, like Nadia, have become more vulnerable to being committed — despite not being mentally ill. The issue has prompted mental health and disability rights advocates to raise alarms.
Part II of this series will look at how children with disabilities are being increasingly swept up into the mental health system.
This article was conceived and produced as a project between WFSU News and Health News Florida for the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.
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