by JESSICA WILLIAMS
HERNANDO SUN WRITER
A 6 year old girl, a Princess Elsa backpack at her feet, sitting in a chair in the front office of her school. You kneel down to her level. You can’t see her hands because they’re in handcuffs, behind her back. She is under a Baker Act.
As a parent, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a social services worker, or police officer; human emotions would be challenged at that moment. All, who would be in that room with that little girl, are human beings. No one wants to see a young child in handcuffs. However, it’s unfortunately an event that happens at times, in those professions. For reasons, that aren’t criminal.
Is she a bad child?
Did she commit a crime?
Is she going to jail?
But a pair of handcuffs around the wrists of her small hands, are life altering. Even if it’s “just a Baker Act.” Convincing an impressionable 1st grader that she isn’t a bad person while her wrists are clamped together by cold, locked bracelets of metal, is difficult. She will always remember this day.
What is a Baker Act? It is a Florida law that enables families and loved ones to provide emergency mental health services and temporary detention for people who are impaired because of their mental illness, and who are unable to determine their need for treatment. (University of Florida Health).
However, are all children who are being Baker Acted, mentally ill?
In 2013 [Hernando County], “Spring Brook Hospital evaluated 70 child and adolescent Baker Act patients”. (Tampa Bay Times, Mar 2014). In 2014, just a year later, “in the same period, the number ballooned to 131” child and adolescent Baker Act patients. (Tampa Bay Times, Mar 2014). That is almost double the child/adolescent patients.
In addition, “according to the Florida Courts 2016-2017 Circuit Family Court Statistics, Hernando County has the largest Juvenile Delinquency caseload in the Fifth Judicial Circuit. (The Fifth Judicial Circuit is comprised of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumter Counties.) Additionally, according to the Florida Courts 2016-2017 Circuit Family Court Statistics, Hernando County has the largest Baker Act and Substance Abuse Act case load in the Fifth Judicial Circuit.” (Correspondence dated May 14 2018, To The Honorable Steve Champion, Chairman of County Commissioners from S. Sue Robbins Chief Judge of Fifth Judicial Circuit).
Sitting in an office on campus, across from a 15 year old girl. One arm, sleeved up with tattoos, a nose piercing she refused to take off, and an extensive discipline record. She says nothing, only shrugging her shoulders and few words of profanity. She threatened to harm someone else. Her wrists have old scars, possibly trying to cause pain on herself in the past. Drawing images of death scenes in her notebook has become a hobby.
In some situations, a Baker Act is the only choice left, to help a child that’s severely suffering and in pain.
Florida Statutes explain what type of facilities will accept children in those circumstances:
CHILDREN NOT ALLOWED IN STATE- OPERATED/OWNED MENTAL HEALTH
FACILITIES BUT ARE ALLOWED IN CRISIS STABILIZATION AND REHAB FACILITIES.
“FL Statute: 394.4785 Children and adolescents; admission and placement in mental facilities.—
(1) A child or adolescent as defined in s. 394.492 may not be admitted to a state-owned or state-operated mental health treatment facility. A child may be admitted pursuant to s. 394.4625 or s. 394.467 to a crisis stabilization unit or a residential treatment center licensed under this chapter or a hospital licensed under chapter 395. The treatment center, unit, or hospital must provide the least restrictive available treatment that is appropriate to the individual needs of the child or adolescent and must adhere to the guiding principles, system of care, and service planning provisions contained in part III of this chapter.”
These facilities have witnessed a significantly large increase in number of children brought to them under a Baker Act in the last 5 years.
A recent comment by a local citizen on January 15, 2019 to the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners described the issue. Randy Kelly expressed concern for a 10 year old child who needed hospitalization under a Baker Act. Kelly said, “We’re here in Hernando County, and the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) picked up the child, then took the child to (Spring)brook, which is an intake facility to find the child a bed. Once the child got there, we were told that the two closest facilities were Ocala and Orlando. Now this 10 year old child is way off in Titusville, which is 128 miles away from where we live. I’m wondering if the commission can look into something for the juveniles, because this seems to be…a regular occurrence. Children are taken, then sent halfway across the state to a treatment facility because we have no juvenile treatment facilities within our county.” Kelly added that he has to travel to Gainesville to receive mental health services for another child.
Jim Harris, Director of Springbrook told The Hernando Sun in September 2018, they do receive Baker Acted minors but Springbrook does not have a treatment program for children at this time. “The continuum of care for adolescents in this community is kind of broken in essence,” stated Mr. Harris. Baker Act patients, who are children, are sent to facilities who have a child-adolescent treatment. All of these facilities are out-of-county and not nearby.
Tina Kinney, Executive Director for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hernando concurred. “We need a facility here and the children do get shipped out of town which does lead to issues as far as connections to services where they live. That’s where NAMI tries to be the navigator. I think it is a statewide problem for rural communities. Hernando County has a team called BART (Baker Act Resource Team) made up of community partners which is a weekly call for children who have been Baker Acted so we can connect the families to services.”
In June 2018, The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), along with University of South Florida (USF) released a 2016/2017 Annual Baker Act Report. The report states “In the 16 years from Fiscal year of 2001/2002 to Fiscal year of 2016/2017, involuntary examinations more than doubled (111.42% increase). The report also states “16.39% of those people who were baker acted, were children”. More specifically, the Fifth Judicial Circuit (including Hernando County), had 9,031 involuntary examinations, with 24.29% of those examinations being children (17 years of age and younger). This figure is more than the statewide average percentage of 16.39%, mentioned previously.
But are all of these reported Baker Acts, necessary?
A couple years ago, I met Phillip*, 70 years old. First time I heard his story, we were having lunch at a local seafood eatery. Phillip is a successful businessman. After ordering his sweet tea, he told me he grew up in the foster care system. “My father left when I was 3 years old, and my mother could not care for me.” Following a tragic medical procedure, he told me she was left in a vegetative state.
“I was five years old, when I wanted to commit suicide. I had a plan and everything. I was physically abused by my foster parents,” he said, “I was in a dark place, as a little boy.”
Phillip* was Born in the mid 1940s.
The Florida Mental Health Act, also known as “The Baker Act, was not passed until 1971. It would not even be an option for another 30 years, like many other states. Dumbfounded, I asked him how he survived.
He smiled, “I was assigned a social worker. He helped me. I was moved to a different foster home. Later, he took notice of my test scores and made sure I attended good schools, and after living in 12 different foster homes, he helped me apply to a SEC University, where I played college football and got my MBA”.
He continued, “I graduated, got married, had children and now have grandchildren and a successful business”.
“Never give up”, he said.
Someone, many years ago, listened to that little 5 year old boy. Are we listening to our children?
In Hernando County, there are sources available to assist with mental health for children if you determine you know or have a child who needs help. Most importantly, they are free of charge (flnamihernando.org). Some of these programs and services are offered in the Hernando County Schools. Others are offered by a national organization called NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illnesses). Below is specific information about these programs and services.
The 2018-2019 Hernando County School District Mental Health Plan addressed 2 school-based mental health programs that serve students. In addition, all Hernando County School District personnel and charter school personnel are directed to receive youth mental health awareness and assistance training to help school personnel understand signs and symptoms of mental health disturbance, illness, and substance abuse.
Project StarFISH: a school-based program to support students at risk of, or with, mild mental health challenges for grades Kindergarten through the 8th grade. The program is funded by Medicaid.
Project SeaHORSE: a school-based program to support students at risk of, or with, mild mental health challenges for 9th grade through 12th grade. The program is funded through legislative dollars. In March 2018, the state budget was finalized for this program, allowing access to mental health services for high school students, teaching them how to deal with trauma and develop coping skills. Students who participate will also receive academic credit.
NAMI Hernando: National Alliance on Mental Illness, part of the nation’s largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by Mental Illness. There are multiple programs and services offered to children as well as adults, including counseling and educational programs. Registration is required for most programs. To sign up or to find out more, please contact: (352)-684-0004 Crisis Line or (800)-945-1355 (Evening Crisis Line). Location Address: 10554 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill, Florida 34608.
Also, coming soon to The Hernando Sun will be a special feature article where you can learn more about NAMI Hernando, and mental health programs it provides for adults and children.