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Baker Act exams decrease for the first time in more than 20 years during the year of pandemic

Pandemic likely cause, but some school districts tout new resources to help kids in crisis
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Posted at 6:24 PM, Jun 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-08 21:55:03-04

For the first time, the number of Baker Act exams in Florida decreased. Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone explains why, and some say, the pandemic doesn’t explain it all.

The number of Baker Act exams in Florida decreased last year, representing the first decrease since the state started tracking the data more than two decades ago, according to USF’s Baker Act Reporting Center.

The center tracks the number of involuntary mental health exams initiated under the state’s Baker Act Law in an annual report. While the report is expected to be released this summer, early numbers show:

  • Between FY18/19 and FY 19/20:
    • The statewide total of involuntary psychiatric exams decreased by 3.98%
    • For kids under 18, exams decreased by 5.06%
    • For young adults between 18-24, exams decreased by 4.85%
    • For Adults 25-64, exams decreased by 2.8%
    • Exams for older adults 65+, exams decreased 4.32%

During FY 2018/2019, the center logged 210,992 Baker Act exams in Florida, an all-time high. Last year, that statewide total dropped to 202,595 total Baker Act exams.

baker acts all ages 2021

The center found the largest drop in Baker Act examinations in the group that, historically, has experienced the largest surge in Baker Act exams — kids. According to the data, 35,360 exams were conducted on kids under 18 in FY19/20 versus 37,882 exams for kids a year earlier.

baker acts under 18, 2021

“We need to reduce that number by much, much more,” said Sam Boyd, senior attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. In March, the advocacy group released a critical report about the overuse and abuse of the Baker Act in Florida.

Boyd believes the decrease in Baker Act exams is more reflective of the pandemic than any fundamental change in how the Baker Act is utilized across the state.

“We don’t see any other policy changes that could explain it other than the fact that folks are staying home because of the pandemic,” Boyd said.

Created in 1971, the law allows certain professionals, including law enforcement, to transport a person to a mental health receiving facility for an involuntary psychiatric exam if the person is deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others. But over the years, critics have described the law as dysfunctional and overused as a short-term detention resource rather than the beginning of any long-term solution to mental health illness.

Schools have also been targeted as institutions abusing the law as the number of children sent from campus to mental health facilities for involuntary psych exams continued to increase over time.

During FY18/19, the state logged nearly 38,000 Baker Act exams for kids with some kids as young as 5-years-old involuntarily committed. Experts say most Baker Acts involving children are initiated at school.

But some school districts believe their decrease in student-related Baker Acts can also be attributed to newfound focus and investment on improving mental health on campus.

In Orange County, over the past three years, the number of student Baker Acts in the district dropped from 542 in FY18/19 to 104 this school year.

orange county school districts baker acts 2021

Mary Bridges, Director of Student Services for the district, said while the pandemic played a role with school shutdowns in the spring and distance learning in the fall, a new district-wide emphasis on emotional learning and mental health is also contributing to the lower numbers.

Funding from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act earmarked for mental health assistance helped the district hire social workers in addition to school counselors at every school. The district also utilizes community partners and crisis stabilization units to meet the needs of students in crisis or and aim to reach students they hit a point of crisis, Bridges said.

The changes give staff the chance to call on a mental health professional before calling law enforcement.

“We have to keep them safe and this gives us more resources to do that without resorting all the way to the Baker Act,” she said.

After a year consumed by a global health crisis, it’s too early to tell if the recent drop in Baker Acts in Florida is sustainable or just another anomaly during a year full of them.

“I don’t think it shows that we turned a page or made any fundamental change that is sufficient to start reducing inappropriate use of involuntary psychiatric examination on children or adults for that matter,” said Boyd.

The center released basic statewide totals exclusively to Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone. LaGrone has reported on the increasing number of Baker Acts involving children for several years. Her reporting helped lead lawmakers to pass new measures this session aimed at decreasing the number of children Baker Acted by notifying parents before a Baker Act is initiated and making sure school districts track students who are sent for involuntary psychiatric exams under the state’s Baker Act law