Florida kids are getting sent to psychiatric units under the Baker Act in record numbers
Such evaluations have been outpacing child population growth statewide — and in regions like Southwest Florida, by leaps and bounds — for nearly a generation.
Frank Gluck, Fort Myers News-PressUpdated 12:56 p.m. PDT Aug. 22, 2019
Content warning: This story references incidents of self-harm.
Trouble started, as it often does, with a romantic rivalry.
One teenage boy, a student at Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, warned his schoolmate, Solan Caskey, to stay away from a certain teenage girl in a series of Sharpie-penned messages on the school’s bathroom wall. Solan, being a teenage boy himself, impulsively responded with his own graffiti, including:
"Mother f---er try me," "She's mine, bitch" and "I accept to fight..."
The exact details of what happened immediately after this 2017 exchange are uncertain. But a day later, a police report shows that the school resource officer and a school psychologist concluded Solan was suicidal and possibly wanted to kill other students.
Solan denied this at the time (and still does), but the officer forced him to the ground and handcuffed him before taking him to Charlotte Behavioral Health Center in Punta Gorda for a potentially multi-day forced stay.
There, he got a mental health examination under the state's Baker Act — making his case one of a record 32,763 such evaluations of Florida children that year.
0:001:29ADSolan Caskey was Baker Acted twice and released as soon as his case was reviewed“They want to use the Baker Act for any behavioral problem — anything they don’t like," Hilary Caskey said.AMANDA INSCORE, AINSCORE@NEWS-PRESS.COM
Such mental health checks have been outpacing child population growth statewide — and in regions like Southwest Florida, by leaps and bounds — for nearly a generation.
In the last 10 years alone, they have more than doubled in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, far outpacing population growth. There are now more than 2,200 such cases involving children every year in this region.
Many see this as a sign of increased awareness of mental illness in children at a time when data show that suicidal thoughts and actions among those younger than 18 are increasing. Their increase also tracks with the rise of mass shootings in the United States, and a heightened awareness of that threat, particularly in schools.
But some parents, counselors and other mental health experts say the rapid increase in such forced examinations, which are designed for only those likely at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, suggests that the law is being used more as a disciplinary tool than a mental health aid.
And, they argue, taking kids into custody who are not actually suicidal or credibly threatening others’ lives – often in handcuffs and in the presence of their peers – may worsen conditions like chronic depression and anxiety.
Read more in this series: Explore the mental health crisis faced by Southwest Florida's kids
Read our editorial: How to address the rise in juvenile Baker Act committals in Florida
In Solan’s case, medical records show that a psychiatrist interviewed him the next day and determined he was not a threat.
District spokesman Michael Riley, citing federal student privacy regulations, refused to discuss this particular incident. He responded via email only to say that children receive Baker Act referrals at school to "protect the child from doing harm to themselves or others."
Solan’s mother, Hilary, doesn’t buy that. And she remains livid.
“They want to use (the) Baker Act for any behavioral problem — anything that they don’t like," Hilary Caskey said. "If you have any kind of outburst, if you have any kind of emotion whatsoever and you are not just an order-following automaton, they will Baker Act you.”
The Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly referred to as the "Baker Act" in reference to the law's original sponsor, allows for voluntary or involuntary mental health evaluations of up to 72 hours for people who have mental illnesses and are considered an immediate threat to themselves or others.
The law and its many amendments over the decades were designed to bring a consistent process to treating individuals with mental illness and to set forth —and, thus protect — their civil rights.
But some question whether the nearly half-century-old law is living up to its original intent, particularly as it relates to children.