ORLANDO, Fla. — Labeled a threat and held at a mental health facility against your will — a Spectrum News 13 Watchdog investigation has found this situation happening to thousands of children every year in Florida, including many who are younger than 10.
- State data: Number of kids held under Baker Act on the rise
- Official: Baker Act holds in Orange County skyrocketed after Parkland
- People must get 40 hours of training before qualifying to hold a child
- WATCHDOG INVESTIGATIONS: We are taking a look at issues that go unnoticed or needs more digging. Have a question, comment, or suggestion? Ask us on our Watchdog page.
Data from the Department of Children and Families indicates that the number of children being held under the Baker Act has jumped more than 118 percent from 2001 to 2016.
Some families told Spectrum News 13's Stephanie Coueignoux that the people with the power to hold someone else under Baker Act aren’t getting enough training.
Beth Carr and her son Chris spoke with us at their church in Winter Garden — a place that Carr says helped them through one of the darkest time of their lives.
It started with a phone call.
“I thought it was a joke at first. I said, ‘Who is this?’ And she said no, she was serious, and she repeated her name and told me she was from the school, and that she was calling me as a courtesy,” Carr recalled.
Chris, who was 15 years old at the time, had been taken into custody at his Orange County high school and transported to a mental health facility. It was December 2016.
According to Orange County Public Schools documents obtained by Spectrum News 13, Chris made some “possibly alarming comments” in class, including that he “played violent video games and found killing and torturing people funny.”
Chris claims he never meant it seriously.
"Looking back, I think it was me just being an edgy teen and failing,” he said.
He denied ever having serious thoughts about killing or harming people.
Baker Act criteria
School district officials declined our offers to talk on camera, but a spokeswoman sent us a statement that reads, in part:
“We work closely with law enforcement to identify when a student is in crisis so they can decide if a Baker Act is necessary. The purpose of a Baker Act is not to discipline but rather to protect an individual from harming themselves or others.”
According to Florida Law, to hold someone under the Baker Act, that person must fit the following criteria:
- There is reason to believe that he or she is mentally ill.
- Because of his or her mental illness, the person has refused voluntary examination.
- Without care or treatment, the person is likely to suffer from neglect and present threat of substantial harm that can’t be avoided through the help of others.
One of the mental health professionals who assessed Chris wrote in his report, "Patient does not meet Baker Act criteria.”
“I didn’t realize that me just saying anything could be construed as “this is a live threat," Chris said.
Said Carr: “I think the Baker Act is a tool that the schools and authorities can use to justify using fear over reason.”
But with mass shootings on the rise, preventing further violence and protecting the public are legitimate concerns.
Donna Wyche, manager for Orange County’s Division of Mental Health and Homeless, says that following the 2018 Parkland school shooting, Baker Act holdings in Orange County schools skyrocketed.
“Folks don’t want to take a chance anymore on a kid who seems angry and upset … So what do we do? Do we overreact? Do we send them to a Baker Act facility? Or do you simply interject in that child’s life, some help that doesn’t necessarily require Baker Acting but may just need as significant person to be able to vent?” Wyche said.
The Department of Children and Families is the state agency that oversees the Baker Act.
Wyche says especially among children, whose brains and emotional skills are still developing, behavioral problems don’t always indicate a mental illness. And failure to recognize the difference could be extremely damaging.
“It’s very traumatic for a kid to be Baker Acted. It’s very traumatic to be in a crisis unit with a lot of people with mental health issues who are around you. That’s a tough place to be,” Wyche said.
Under Florida law, law enforcement, medical personnel, and other people must undergo 40 hours of training before being qualified to hold someone under the Baker Act.
It’s not enough, Carr says. By comparison, nail technicians in Florida are required to complete 240 hours of school training.
"We have added, fortunately, another class for law enforcement and school personnel and corrections officers to understand children’s mental health," Wyche said.
But that’s on a voluntary basis.
A "flawed" system
While the total number of children held under the Baker Act is rising statewide, numbers vary wildly from county to county.
We asked Wyche whether that is an indication of a broken system.
“I’d hate to use the word 'broken,' but are there some ways that a group of peers and professionals can come together and really have a meeting of the minds about what we need to do differently. I think there is opportunity to do that. I’d call it flawed,” she said.
In Chris’s case, he was released from the hospital before the end of the typical 72-hour hold period. Orange County Public Schools also allowed him to return to class. But his mom said it still impacts them today.
“When I get a call from him, or my husband, or the school for whatever reason during the day, it’s fear. It’s fear,” Carr said.
Spectrum News 13 has reached out to DCF and Gov. Ron DeSantis' office to discuss the concerns about the amount of training required for Baker Act holds and the fact that different counties train people differently.
So far, they have not agreed to speak on camera.