Florida’s Baker Act law gets one step closer to its first major reforms in 50 years

teens crisis
'It's changing the thinking that these are criminal situations into thinking about them as mental health situations.'

Florida’s Baker Act law, which allows voluntary and involuntary institutionalization during a mental health crisis, might be about to see its first big reform in 50 years.

Rep. Pat Maney, an Okaloosa Republican, saw his bill (HB 1143) clear its penultimate committee stop Tuesday before a final floor vote. The bill received bipartisan praise in the House Appropriations Committee, especially for its attempt to reduce the criminalization of people in crisis.

“It’s so disheartening to me. We’re not doing enough with regard to funding for mental health in this state,” Rep. Ben Diamond said. “It’s changing the thinking that these are criminal situations into thinking about them as mental health situations, particularly with regard to children.”

Maney said the Baker Act hasn’t kept up with law, culture or medicine. Some of the major changes include giving more discretion to law enforcement as to when and how someone can be transferred if they are in a crisis. The bill would require law enforcement to use the least restrictive methods possible, meaning fewer children in handcuffs. It also gives law enforcement greater ability to employ alternative methods like crisis response teams instead of jumping straight to a Baker Act.

Florida’s Baker Act has come under fire for further traumatizing children or being used as a first resort instead of last when handling people, especially children, experiencing a crisis. HB 1143 gives family greater access to a child who’s been held under the act, opens more staff to release children held on a weekend and employs clinical review as opposed to a judicial hearing to determine if an involuntary placement is necessary.

The bill has received little criticism, but Caitlyn Clibbon, public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, warned of potential unintended consequences. She said she’s already seen schools give parents the ultimatum of voluntarily admitting a child or the school doing so involuntarily. But those voluntary placements could skew the actual numbers of children in crisis. Florida has seen as many as 38,000 children held under the Baker Act in a single year.

“We have a massive problem with kids in mental health crises in Florida and we need to know why,” Gibbon said. “And without the data it’s really hard to answer that question. Our statutes do not currently require the tracking of voluntary admissions in the way we track involuntary admissions. Our Baker Act reporting center doesn’t report on voluntary admissions. If we can’t see these kids, we can’t understand what’s happening to them, we won’t be able to understand why. We won’t be able to stop the bleeding.”

HB 1143 has one more committee stop before being eligible for a full House vote.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]


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