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Senate panel backs bill on mental health assessments

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A Senate committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would require involuntary psychiatric assessments on children age 14 or younger to be initiated within eight hours.

The bill (SB 270) was filed by Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee about a 5-year-old child in his district who was involuntarily detained in a psychiatric facility overnight awaiting an examination.

The child, whose brother had died several weeks earlier, wrote a note in school saying she wanted to kill herself, Steube said.

The school subsequently called law enforcement, Steube said, and the child was picked up, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car and transported to the psychiatric ward.

Initially, the bill would have required an “examination” to be conducted within eight hours, but the committee approved an amendment that changed “examination” to “assessment.”

Clinical psychologist Jay Reeve told members of the committee that an assessment usually is started by a master’s level clinician with training in working with at-risk youth and adults and can also include other members of a team such as a social worker.

He said the team works to gather what he called “collateral information” that can be used during an examination, which can only be conducted by a psychiatrist, psychiatric advanced registered nurse practitioner or licensed clinical psychologist.

Reeve said collateral information can be collected from family members, school officials or even law enforcement and can help guard against what he called “false-negative” diagnoses.

Reeve, a speaking on behalf of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, said false negative diagnoses can be tragic.

“False negatives can result in folks being released prior to truly assessing whether there is a threat to harm self or others, whether there is abuse in the home, whether there is another issue that may cause the child and family to be at risk,” Reeve said.

Richard Chapman, a mental health counselor and family therapist from Tampa, told committee members they should consider changing the bill to expand the list of professionals who can conduct so-called Baker Act examinations to also include licensed social workers and licensed marriage and family therapists.

The bill is slated to be heard next by the Senate Rules Committee.

There is no House version.