WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — Carter Goff, 9, loves to give hugs. But for his parents, his hugs now hold a somber significance after police held Carter under the Baker Act at a hospital facility overnight.
- Boy with autism spectrum disorder was held overnight under Baker Act
- 9-year-old was picked on at school and threatened to harm himself
- Teacher called boy's dad and police; police body cam recorded incident
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"Hugging him is a completely different experience than it has ever been before," said Carter's mother, Alison, after the incident, which began on an afternoon in May. That's when Carter's parents say the boy was picked on at school. Upset, Carter said he wanted to hurt himself. A teacher took the boy to the office to calm down — and then called his father and Winter Garden Police.
"They told me they had called police, and I said, 'That’s fine. That’s your protocol you have to follow,' " said Ryan Goff, Carter's father.
Ryan Goff, a 911 dispatcher, is familiar with call procedures. But says what happened next is unacceptable.
The responding officer had his body camera rolling during the incident. Because of HIPPA laws that federally protect a patient's medical information, Winter Garden Police provided Spectrum News 13 with a redacted copy of the footage.
But the Goffs shared their unedited copy with us.
After an officer’s questioning, Carter repeated word for word how he wanted to harm himself, adding that he now felt better, the video shows. He appears calm and relaxed.
"Sometimes my emotions, I’m very emotional, so sometimes it makes me say it," Carter says.
According to The Autism Society, children with Asperger’s may not understand the subtleties of language and have significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Florida’s Baker Act law states that the definition of "mental illness... does not include... developmental disability." The autism spectrum is considered a developmental disability.
"You may treat people who are adults that way and who can speak up for themselves. But a child who obviously didn’t understand what was going on? How dare you. How dare you," Ryan Goff said.
In the video, the officer does not ask Carter about his Asperger’s condition.
We asked City Manager Mike Bollhoefer whether the child's disability should have been discussed during the encounter.
"It is a conversation we’ve had with our officers subsequent. I think (it's) not only a concern we have to address, we have to provide better training and immediate help from behavioral therapists," Bollhoefer said.
In the video, the officer repeatedly questions the school official about calling Carter’s father, who was already on his way to pick up the boy. The officer also tells Carter he’s going for a ride in a police car to speak with more people.
Carter said he thought he was just going for a ride and didn't realize he was going to a hospital. He thought his father was picking him up.
"All the police told me there was that I was going to talk to higher authorities, not that I was going to go there (to a hospital) and stay there the night. It was hard. Very rough," Carter told us.
"We’ve changed our standard operating procedures when it comes to a child, requiring that the first priority we do is release the child to the parent. And we’ve changed our SOPs to do that in the future," Bollhoefer said.
Under Florida law, authorities with the power to hold someone under the Baker Act must undergo 40 hours of training. By comparison, nail technicians in Florida are required to have 240 hours of training.
"Forty hours should be in the intro, because that’s an awesome responsibility, and you have to realize what an awesome responsibility is. And I don’t think that this officer did. It was flippant. It was like, 'Oh well, let’s do it,' " Ryan Goff said.
Bollhoefer said the officer involved had received additional voluntary Baker Act training. He said the city will now require all officers to undergo that training. The city is also looking at other types of training so officers can better understand the Baker Act law and how to appropriately use it. Bollhoefer also said the city would like officers to have access to behavioral therapists to discuss potential Baker Act situations.
Donna Lorman, the president of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando, tells us she's receiving an increasing number of calls from parents who have had similar experiences.
"I would say in the past couple of years, the rate of Baker Acts of individuals with autism have grown exponentially. The calls are coming in three to five a week. Those are huge numbers in and around the Central Florida," Lorman said.
The Department of Children and Families, the state agency that oversees the Baker Act law, told us it doesn’t specifically track Baker Act holds of children with autism. But a recent DCF study found the overall number of children being held under the Baker Act has jumped more than 118% from 2001 to 2016.
Ryan Goff wants lawmakers to institute changes.
"Don’t let this happen to another family," he said. "There can be changes, common sense changes, that wouldn’t hurt the system," Goff said.
The Goffs said Carter is now in therapy to work through his trauma.
"I wanted to do it (speak up) to change the law, help people out there who are being Baker Acted like people at school who shouldn’t be Baker Acted. It’s hard. It’s very hard. I know how they feel," Carter said.