Advocates applaud long-desired updates to Florida's Baker Act
One change allows parents of minors to skip a court review and voluntarily check their children into facilities as long as parent and child agree.
For years, mental health advocates have been trying to get the state to reexamine its laws around involuntary psychiatric commitment. Previous legislative sessions has taken some incremental steps, but this year marks the biggest change, advocates say.
Still, the work to reduce the number of people being committed against their will isn’t over, according to some providers.
The version of the bill that passed includes two issues that have continued to vex mental health advocates: how people are transported to facilities, and whether they can commit themselves.
The Baker Act is the section of law written to allow a person to be involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation, while the Marchman Act is similar and deals directly with substance abuse.
Historically, law enforcement has been the only entity allowed to transport people who may need to be Baker Acted — it’s an issue that’s led to many high-profile cases of children as young as 5 being taken from schools in the back of police cars.
Under the Legislature’s change, law enforcement can now decide whether such transport is necessary. The other big change allows parents of minors to skip a court review and voluntarily check their children into facilities as long as parent and child agree.
It’s a big change, says Melanie Brown-Woofter, president of the Florida Behavioral Health Association, an advocacy arm that supports the state’s mental health hospitals and community centers.
“Our hope is that this is a step to modernize the Baker Act," Woofter says. “What we see overall with the bill is that it helps to break the stigma and reduce the fear of parents to bring their child or loved one in for this situation. It turns it into a medical decision and takes it out of the courts’ hands.”
The idea behind that change is to treat mental health emergencies the same as a medical illness or injury that would result in a trip to an emergency room. Advocates hope it will lead more families to reach out for help on their own.
“I think the changes that were made are good changes, and I am glad they happened and I do think they can make a difference," says Dr. Michael Shapiro, a psychiatrist and member of the Florida Psychiatric Society.
Shapiro says he is pleased to see the language around who can transport people change but wants to push that a bit further.
“For most kids with a medical emergency who we are trying to help, we don’t call the police on them and we don’t put them in the back of a police car,” he says. “But I think that will take a little more time and we will work with the legislators this summer and come back next year.”
Shapiro also wants to see parents be able to have more interactions with their children if their kids are in a psychiatric hospital, something that doesn’t happen now.
“Because psychiatric hospitals are locked facilities and emphasize safety first, they tend to separate kids from families and leads to the stigma, and a lot of parents feel left out of the process," Shapiro says.
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