Report: Student Baker Act cases up 18%

Threats to harm themselves or others are landing more children in mental health facilities across the state under the Baker Act, and a safety commission said that does nothing to treat the underlying issues.

According to a University of South Florida report, statewide Baker Acts went up 18% for children from 2013 to 2018. In the last week, four Hernando County students were admitted into mental health facilities under the Baker Act, a trend the school district calls atypical. In every case, there was self-harm or the threat of self-harm.

“We live at a time where people are really scared. And when a child says she wants to hurt herself, it's sort of an automatic response,” said Dr. Wendy Rice of Rice Psychology in Tampa.

The law allows a judge, health professional, or law enforcement officer to involuntarily commit someone for three days for a mental health evaluation. But those in the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission found the current system is overused and ineffective.

“Less than 1% result in involuntary commitment, it doesn't result in treatment. It results in a revolving door,” said Sheriff Bob Gaultieri of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

In Hernando County, slightly more students have been Baker Acted in the few years: 140 students in 2017, 163 in 2018 and 111 since January according to the sheriff’s office.

In Hillsborough County, there appears to be a slight downward trend with 1,297 students in 2017, 994 in 2018 and 677 children so far this year according to the sheriff’s office.

Health professionals said not all students may be in danger.

“It's very hard to know when kids are saying things that they really mean, or they're saying it in jest or they're saying it just to get a reaction,” said Rice.

But every threat must be taken seriously.

“All of our patrol districts actually has a mental health deputy who follows up on these repeat Baker Act offenders someone we know has had a history of mental health,” said Amanda Granit, a spokesperson with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

The MSD commission said better long term planning and care is necessary, not a short term fix, which psychologists say is needed.

“Rather than feeling ashamed that this happened, why not put our heads together and collectively as a village support the child and the family,” said Rice.

The MSD commission called the state’s mental health system broken and made recommendations to the legislature that include better case management across the state and figuring out why people are repeatedly Backer Acted.