Committed: Kids With Disabilities Increasingly Swept Into Mental Health System Under Baker Act
Each year, about 36,000 children in Florida are involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluations under the state's Baker Act and disabled kids are becoming increasingly ensnared.
The Baker Act was not designed for kids, yet the number of children who are involuntarily committed keeps going up. State data shows kids with certain disabilities are becoming increasingly ensnared — despite language in the law meant to keep them out of the mental health system. The second part of this series about children who are committed examines why minors with emotional and developmental disabilities are more likely to be sent for involuntary psychiatric exams.
A Class Apart
Nadia King’s class at Love Grove Elementary in Jacksonville was different from others.
“There were a lot of physically disabled students in her classroom," said Nadia's mother, Martina Faulk. "She was in a class with other kids with disabilities, physical disabilities."
Then 6-year-old Nadia was involuntarily committed for a psychiatric exam under the Baker Act earlier this year after throwing a fit. A police report says she was attacking teachers and trying to run out of the school.
Nadia has a developmental disability and ADHD. Her teachers knew this. It’s why she was in a separate class alongside other special-needs children, and why her mother had an agreement with teachers and school officials, called an individualized education plan or IEP. The plan outlines how Nadia should be taught.
Faulk chose Love Grove Elementary because the school had experience with special needs kids, she said.
“It’s been a struggle to find the right school for her," Faulk said. "Whether public or private—I’ve researched, tried out some things. Then we stumbled across Love Grove elementary."
The Duval County School District declined to be interviewed for this story.
State law says students with developmental disabilities shouldn’t be committed under the Baker Act, and Nadia’s Global Developmental Delay falls into that category. But ADHD does not.
Nadia’s story is tragically common, said Disability Rights Florida attorney Ann Siegel. Kids like her, are “being Baker Acted for the manifestation of their disability,” she said.
Disabled But Not Mentally Ill
Nadia’s developmental disability wasn’t enough to protect her. That’s because there’s a caveat: The law says children can be committed under the Baker Act for other reasons even if they have a developmental disability. If they are considered a threat to themselves or others, as Nadia was, they can be committed.
But Siegel said when children throw fits, as Nadia did, it's not a compelling enough reason to initiate the Baker Act.
"Oftentimes, when you go back and you look at why the student had that incident—whether it was a meltdown or not, you’ll find the student had their triggering events that the school was well aware of," she said.
An internet search reveals pages of articles about children with disabilities ending up in mental health facilities.
Florida's law mandates that officers have the sole responsibility of transporting people who are being committed under the Baker Act. They have to do it, even if they disagree. And Siegel says sometimes those officers may not have all the facts.
“So they come at a child with a snapshot of their life and they make a determination of whether the student meets the criteria … of being a threat to self and others," Siegel said. "And what we’re seeing in our cases, we’re not sure how they reached that determination because the child had already calmed down once they reached the school.”
Jacksonville police officers can be heard on body camera questioning whether the Baker Act was appropriate for Nadia. A 2017 task force report on committing children under the Baker Act found a third of them were unnecessary.
Michael Shapiro has seen it all. The Gainesville psychiatrist is frustrated.
“What you’re really speaking to, to be honest, is a stigma towards mental illness," Shapiro said. "And the perception of whether people are choosing to feel, think or behave the way they are."
Shapiro got so fed up with the system he wrote an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel calling on the state to make changes to what he describes as an ineffectual solution to a major problem:
“The law actually says you’re not supposed to Baker Act someone for a neurodevelopmental problem that really isn’t going to get better just by putting them in a hospital for three days."
Children are more susceptible to being involuntarily committed because they have few rights and even less agency, said Shapiro, who is head of the North Central Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
Controlling vs. Understanding Child Behavior
“Children have historically been viewed as people to be controlled, and not necessarily people to be understood," Shapiro said. "And I think there’s … overemphasis on controlling behavior and not understanding behavior, and not understanding why the behavior happens, or what a kid was thinking or feeling or why they think and feel that way.”
He has called for the state to do away with its requirement that only law enforcement can transport people in a mental health crisis.
Siegel, with Disability Rights Florida said, if she had a magic wand and could change the system, it would be to move it from a reactive approach to something more proactive — catching issues before they become crises.
“I really think we need to invest more time, more resources and more services into our youth," Siegel said. "They are the future of our country and we need to make sure their needs are met they can go on to be as productive, as independent as they can be."
The state has invested more money into school mental health resources, expanding programs like telemedicine and districts have partnered with providers as well. Still, there are gaps, and children are slipping through them.
It’s all coming to a head in schools, which have become an intersection between education, health, child welfare, and policing. Mental health professionals, disability rights activists, parents and even schools say something has to change.
Part three of this series on the Baker Act explores the role schools play in having children committed.
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.