Involuntary commitment. In California, it’s a 5150. In Massachusetts, it’s a Section 12. In Florida, it’s the Baker Act. But right now, we’re talking about Florida. Whatever the Baker Act was meant to do, it wasn’t meant to do it to six-year-olds. Yet in Florida, a six-year-old girl was involuntarily committed for two days of psychiatric evaluation after a temper tantrum at school. The child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a mood disorder.
According to CBS News, a sheriff filed a report, and a social worker stated the girl was a “threat to herself and others,” “destroying school property” and “attacking staff.” Duval County Public Schools told CBS that “‘the decision to admit a student under the Baker Act is made by a third-party licensed mental health care professional'” and that the response was “‘compliant both with law and the best interest of this student and all other students at the school.’”
Florida’s Baker Act was established around 50 years ago and allows authorities to “force such an evaluation on anyone considered to be a danger to themselves or others.” Danger to self or others has long been the standard for involuntary commitment, but until recently, it has seldom been used on young children, especially without immediately notifying their parents.
“The number of children involuntarily transported to a mental health center in Florida has more than doubled in the last 15 years, to about 36,000,” according to a 2019 report by the Baker Act Reporting Center. In another such incident, a “12-year-old boy with autism was taken to a facility in a police cruiser. It was the boy’s first day in middle school and during a meltdown, he scratched himself and then made a suicidal reference,” according to CBS. The boy’s mother says that the school had a plan to follow if the boy made threats, but the plan was ignored.
It’s certainly true that six-year-olds have threatened suicide and some, unfortunately, have completed the act. And 12-year-old boys definitely have the potential to harm themselves and others. But for schools – with the help of law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals – to “Baker Act” children is an extreme interpretation of the law. “The law specifies that minors can only be held for 12 hours before [a mental health] examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility,” according to the Family Center for Recovery. The law does not say that parents must be notified when the child is taken away from the school.
The Family Center adds, “The statute specifically calls for ‘substantial’ evidence, which is [a] much higher bar than simple suspicion. As a result, people cannot be involuntarily institutionalized simply because they’re acting strangely, refuse to seek psychiatric examinations, or have occasional mood swings or outbursts.”
Need I point out that all children, not just special needs children, experience occasional mood swings or outbursts? School personnel are supposed to be trained to handle these situations.
But “zero tolerance” policies for “acting out” and threatening school property have led to such excesses and others, such as the use of in-school restraints and seclusion. Restraints and seclusion are now being called into question, especially since they have been used capriciously and brutally, especially on children with special needs. IEP plans that specify procedures to follow if a child has a meltdown, as with the 12-year-old, and in schools that supposedly have staff trained to handle special needs children, like the six-year-old, are too often not communicated to staff or simply ignored.
Of course, such treatment is the exception rather than the rule. Some states are beginning to enact laws regarding restraint and seclusion. And many well-trained special needs educators would never countenance such treatment of mentally ill or neurodivergent students. But 36,000 children is a lot. Two-day commitment away from parents is excessive for a six-year-old. Police officers taking children away in cruisers before notifying parents is unconscionable. The law specifies that minors can be held for only 12 hours before [a mental health] examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility.
Florida state lawmaker Jennifer Webb has introduced a bill to reform the Baker Act. It includes training for school officials and resource officers and establishes rules on when a parent should be notified that their child might be committed.
“[The Baker Act] should only be used as a last resort,” she told CBS.