Rise in child Baker Act cases prompts meeting at capitol

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32,000 children and teens in Florida were committed for mental health evaluation under the Baker Act in 2015-16, according to a state report discussed Thursday during a task force meeting in Tallahassee.

The number is up 50 percent over the last five years. In the Bay Area, the increase is 68 percent.

Those who treat children who become part of these statistics say the rise is a product of being proactive, but it also reveals a big problem with our mental health system.

"They will share things like, 'I am feeling so overwhelmed, I just want this to end,'" said Derek McCarron, the director of the children's wing at Gracepoint in East Tampa.

Gracepoint gets most of the children committed under the Baker Act in Hillsborough County, which saw a nearly 150 percent increase over the last five years - the second-biggest rise in the state.

To keep up with the demand, Gracepoint has doubled its capacity to 28 beds.

"There's more focus on child mental health right now, due to what's happened with some of the schools," said McCarron.

School shootings have led grown-ups to cast a wide net in who they report. In the last five years, Pasco and Sarasota counties saw a 42 percent rise in child Baker Act cases. Citrus saw a 63 percent increase.

In Polk County, the number was 137 percent. And Hillsborough County saw a 142 percent increase.

This week, a task force in Tallahassee heard from caregivers who say there are few "in-between services."

"They get at their wit's end, and teachers and parents and caregivers don't know what to do other than to use the Baker Act system," said April Lott, the CEO of Directions for Living in Pinellas County.

Indeed, Gracepoint says a third of the kids they receive don't meet the criteria for a long-term stay.

Mccarron worries those kids - who are often taken to Gracepoint in the backs of police cars - could be less likely to seek help next time.

"[They say], 'I thought I'd be OK if I shared this. I didn't know I was going to end up in a facility like this,'" said McCarron.

He says the Baker Act should not be one size fits all.

"When we sit down and regroup and share with them, we can get whatever services you need, we can meet you and your family," said McCarron.

The state now requires children to be seen within 12 hours of arriving at a mental health facility.

The task force heard testimony which suggests finding new ways to provide service once kids are released is essential to their success.