I-TEAM: Number of children held under Baker Act growing

Rising number of orders originating at area schools without parents' say

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Is there a mental health crisis among Florida's children or is a well-known law being used against them? 

The number of children hospitalized for an emergency and involuntary psychiatric evaluation, under a legal statute called the Baker Act, is rising at an alarming rate. The I-TEAM found one in six people being Baker Acted statewide is a child – some children just 10 years old, others even younger. The children are held for 72 hours and sometimes, their parents have no say.

The I-TEAM found two local counties are seeing a large spike: Clay and Alachua counties. A significant number of those calls to commit a child for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation are coming from an unexpected place: school; leaving their parents with no say to stop it, once the school has made the call.

Adam's story

When we were beginning our investigation, 27-year-old Adam Jackson bravely stepped forward to tell his very personal story that involves a life-long struggle with mental health.

"[The] teenage years were pretty, pretty tough," said Jackson. "From the age of 10 to 16, I had been Baker Acted close to 20 times or so."

Jackson battled hard to overcome bipolar disorder and ADHD. He was in and out of six schools in Clay County as a teenager.

"It got to a point where I figured out there were only a few words I had to say and I could get a vacation and not have to worry about school, school was a really hard time for me," he explained.

Asked if the experience of being placed in an involuntary psychiatric hold for three days was beneficial or harmful, Jackson answered, "They were hit and miss. Sometimes taught me how to get away with certain things, other times when I was in crisis and definitely needed it, yes, it did help."

By the numbers

Unfortunately, the I-TEAM found Jackson's story is not isolated; one in every four people being Baker Acted in Clay County is a child under 18, according to the latest report from the Baker Act Reporting Center at the University of South Florida. That's one of the highest ratios in the state of Florida.

Clay County was ranked ninth out of 67 counties statewide in the report, which analyzed nearly 200,000 Baker Act examinations in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, as well as some data from prior years. It's a spike Kathy Lawrence is acutely aware of, as the leader of a non-profit program called SEDNET, which serves 600 severely emotionally disturbed children in Clay, Duval, and Nassau counties.

"It's always been a big issue for us [at SEDNET] because we work directly with the Baker Act facilities," said Lawrence about the rising number of students being committed. "In recent years, we saw the numbers in Clay County were growing. This year is the first year I've seen it on paper. It is alarming. It is alarming. I work with some sad, sad teenagers. I tell them, 'It's my job to make them happier.'"

Lawrence tells the I-TEAM she believes the increase in children and adults being committed involuntarily under the Baker Act is tied to a decrease in funding.

"I think that instead of trying to get a child in to see a psychiatrist to get medication sometimes they end up getting Baker Acted before they can find an appointment out in the community,” Lawrence explained.  “We are not represented well by psychiatrists, we need many more, especially child psychiatrists."

Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states in the country for mental health funding per person according to the most recent national report the I-TEAM could find. It's a hole with ripple effects statewide.

The I-TEAM looked further and found Clay County has seen a 38 percent increase in children being Baker Acted over a five-year span, and that figure takes into account population growth.

In Alachua County, the increase is even higher, with 54 percent more children being involuntarily committed, accounting for population change.

Compare those counties with the highly-populated Duval County, which saw an 8.3 percent increase in minors being committed over five years.

Families traumatized

In Jacksonville, that includes a 12-year-old disabled girl being taken away in handcuffs from a local charter school.

Her mother told the I-TEAM that despite being at the school and physically able to take her daughter home, the principal did not tell her what was happening. Instead, the school kept her locked away from her family for four hours before having her committed and taken away in handcuffs to the Mental Health Resource Center on West 20th Street.

"I was told that since this was an involuntary admission, I didn't have the right to take her home," the mother said. "They took my 12-year-old, 76-pound daughter in hand cuffs! This traumatized our entire family and to be honest, we have not yet recovered fully from the impact of it."

One thing that still puzzles this family is something she says the principal told her.

"One of the things that the principal reiterated to me a number of times that day was that the safety and protection of her students was her No. 1 priority … yet my daughter, who was also a student, deserved that same protection and did not get it."

Since then, the family has seen four separate medical professionals who have told them what happened to their daughter was "unnecessary and horrific."

The I-TEAM found a similar story in Jacksonville involving a 6-year-old boy Baker Acted from his Jacksonville elementary school and taken to River Point Behavioral Health. According to a recent BuzzFeed News investigation, his parents also did not consent, but it took three days for an attorney to get the child back home.

We tried to reach out to family members through their attorney but we were told they are still too shaken up.

The Baker Act report did not detail the history of involuntary examinations of St. Johns County because the county did not meet the threshold of 250 minors being committed in fiscal year 2015-2016.

Percentage of Baker Act exams initiated at school

Schools and the Baker Act

The I-TEAM looked further and found the number of calls for children to be Baker Acted coming from local schools is also growing, according to the report from the Baker Act Reporting Center.

In St. Johns County, the report did outline that 24 percent, or roughly one out of every four calls to commit a minor is coming from school. These circumstances are similar to the stories above, meaning the parents can't stop the process once it's initiated by the school.

In Clay County, 23 percent of the calls to commit children come from schools. Duval County had a lower percentage at 18 percent, Alachua County schools accounted for 12 percent of all calls to commit a minor.

"We're required, if there's a child that's saying they're going to commit suicide or hurt someone else that we have to call someone in," Lawrence said. "It's either the police or a licensed mental health professional that can come in and evaluate the child, and make the determination whether the child actually needs emergency treatment."

But Lawrence said in her career experience, sometimes, it's necessary.

"I've had parents that said I don't think my child's at risk but the child's taken an overdose or has run into traffic saying 'kill me,'" Lawrence said. 

She adds that each case is unique, and the choice is incredibly difficult.

"I would say that they are traumatizing for a child. The problem is that when you're looking at a life or death situation, where a child is threatening to hurt himself, taking them away from their family, putting them in a sterile environment, yes that's traumatizing, but you have to look out for their personal safety as well. So it's never what we'd like, but it is necessary," Lawrence explained.

As if fighting bullying, social media, and existing mental health disorders aren't hard enough, now Lawrence faces challenges from popular culture, like copycats from the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," which shows a teenage girl dealing with bullying by committing suicide and trying to seeking revenge through tapes she left behind.

"I've seen kids that said they're starting to make tapes to give out to kids and they're talking about a suicide plan," Lawrence explained. 

She says that she has had to intervene, and even Baker Act some teens.

"Clay County is on top of this and the new superintendent and the director of climate and culture, they are both very serious about getting this under control," she added. 

News4Jax has reported the superintendent of Clay County Schools, Addison Davis, has sent letters home to parents to warn them about the Netflix series and also content on social media that seems to encourage suicide.

Finding ways to help

Lawrence works hard and is hopeful with more guidance, love and support, more children will overcome -- just like Jackson.

"As a community, we need to stop blaming these children, children are growing up in a very busy society, people are overlooking them. We have a lot of throwaway children nobody really wants. We have a huge amount of children not living with their parents, their living with grandparents, great grandparents, relatives, or anyone that will take them. That may make them feel like they're not wanted. Many of them have been abused or have experienced trauma and those are the things we have to look at," Lawrence explained.

As for Jackson, he is now a father of two, has a GED, is employed, and volunteers as a peer mentor and life coach to help more hurting kids get to the other side.

"I know Ms. Lawrence likes to say it's because of me and my hard work, but I'm pretty sure without her, I'd either be dead or in prison," said Jackson. "So, the people like the Kathy Lawrences of the world need to step up and let people know they are there."

Baker Act changes awaiting action

The Florida Legislature has sought to amend the Baker Act, which was first passed in 1971.  During the 2017 legislative session, Jacksonville-area state Sen. Audrey Gibson supported changes to the Baker Act which were included in a broader child welfare bill. 

READ: House Bill 1121 proposed Baker Act changes

Her proposed changes would create a new task force overseen by the Department of Children and Families with numerous state agencies to figure out alternatives for minors other than "Baker Acting" them, and make sure the Baker Act wasn't being abused.

The bill would also mandate that a minor be evaluated within the first 12 hours after commitment.  The bill was presented to Florida Gov. Rick Scott on June 14 and he has until June 29 to sign it or otherwise act on it.

Facility under investigation

The I-TEAM has confirmed the company that owns River Point Behavioral Health in Jacksonville, Florida, is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice's fraud division. At issue -- and currently under criminal investigation -- is if UHS billed Medicaid and Medicare fraudulently for treatments.

River Point Behavioral Health is one of three facilities owned by UHS that is part of the criminal inquiry that has already had funding cut-off. Locally, UHS also owns and operates Wekiva Springs in Jacksonville and St. Simons by the Sea in St. Simons, Georgia which are also included in the federal criminal probe.

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