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Frustrations mount as reforms to Baker Act and other involuntary commitment laws remain elusive

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Among the "tweaks" to the law State Sen. Aaron Bean calls for involves how much discretion law enforcement officers have in responding to Baker Acts.

Republican Sen. Aaron Bean describes his proposal as more of a “tweak” to the system, but some say there’s a lot left undone.

For years, some lawmakers have been pushing major rewrites of the Baker and Marchmanacts — key laws that enable people to be involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation. The latest effort is again in trouble. While Republican Sen. Aaron Bean describes his proposal as more of a “tweak” to the system, some stakeholders suggest there’s a lot left undone.

Bean started off a recent presentation on his bill with an apology.

“I embarked on a journey to do a major overhaul of the Marchman and Baker acts .that this committee is very familiar with in dealing with mental illness," he said before acknowledging that those plans resulted in a 51-page bill being whittled down to five.

COMMITTED: Our award-winning series highlights children sent into confinement by school officials

The effort began as a full rewrite of the Baker Act, which allows people to be committed against their will for psychiatric evaluation. The law has been heavily criticized for the number of people sent for involuntary psychiatric exams, with Florida having some of the highest rates in the nation. The organizations involved — from medical providers to behavioral health facilities, managing entities, disability advocates, and others — have never been able to agree on what needs to change, a fact Bean tacitly admitted.

“I have come to realize that although challenging, because of the nature of mental illness, our Marchman and Baker acts just need some minor tweaks to go forward,” he said.

One of those tweaks involves how much discretion law enforcement officers have in responding to Baker Acts. They are the only ones the law allows to transport people to facilities and they’re required to restrain and use handcuffs, something Bean says he did not know. This issue has resulted in high-profile cases of young children being handcuffed in the back of police vehicles.

“Thank you for giving law enforcement discretion, I’ve seen videos of 5-year-olds being handcuffed, it's just awful," said Sen. Gayle Harrell, who for years has sought changes to the state's involuntary commitment laws.

Recent cases in Jacksonville and South Florida involving children have helped call attention to broader concerns in the law. Bean’s bill now allows law enforcement to use less-restrictive methods.

Still, law enforcement retains the sole authority to transport — something some mental health and disability rights advocates have long sought to change. Bean’s revisions also target the issue of whether a person can voluntarily admit themselves to a facility. Historically, minors would have to undergo a court hearing. Under the change, parents would be able to consent for their children and leave the decision regarding commitment to health care providers and not courts.

“Mental illness really shouldn’t be any different from whether a child has a broken leg on the playground. Before we can accept them to get help, 'Let's have a hearing about whether we should go forward.' Let’s end that," Bean said.

The bill doesn’t address other longstanding concerns. Like ensuring law enforcement can consult with health providers before initiating a Baker Act - and figuring out why Florida’s rate of involuntary commitments is far higher than in other states. There’s also a bill that would give parents the ability to intervene on behalf of a child who is committed after a call from a school.

None of these proposals have gone anywhere. Disability Rights Florida policy director Caitlin Clibbon says gaps remain, such as a continued reliance on law enforcement and schools.

“These are the issues that are ever-present," Clibbon said. "One of those is data collection. We don’t have the right data points, not enough data, and the right people don’t have the data. There are several bills that touch on data, and those are easier, low-hanging fruit.

But they won’t pass, either. The House and Senate are unable to agree on what changes need to be made. Several task forces between 2017 and the present have repeatedly examined the use of involuntary commitment yet most of the proposed reforms have failed to get through, with politicians and stakeholders continuing to struggle on where to draw the line.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.