A reporter’s family story fuels series on Florida’s involuntary psychiatric exams of children
(Photo by justin lincoln via Flickr/Creative Commons)
One of the biggest lessons a journalist is taught is to avoid stories that are close or personal to you. The idea is that if you are too close to a story, it can influence your judgment, or even worse, reflect a bias in your reporting. For years, I avoided stories I deemed too personal. Until the day I couldn’t.
Last fall, I was talking to my mother, and she mentioned my nephew was having problems in school. I wondered what sort of problems. My nephew was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at a very young age. His school knew this, his teachers knew this, and for years, my mom has worked hand-in-hand with the school to address my nephews needs. He’s a good student, and while there had been the occasional outburst and tantrum, his teachers were very skilled in de-escalation.
My mother said my nephew had gotten into a fight with another student who called him a name.
Regular kid-stuff, I thought.
He’d called another kid a foul word on a school bus.
Where had he picked that up from, I wondered.
It was around October, when I was visiting my mother, that she got a call from the principal. “You need to get here before the police do,” he’d said. My nephew was having a meltdown, throwing a massive fit in class to the point where the teacher had to clear the room of other students. Jayden was inconsolable, and the school had tried everything to get him to calm down. Nothing was working.
I remember us racing to the school, the principal waiting by the door and taking us to Jayden, who by that time had been put in the principal’s office. When he saw us, he started crying.
Shortly after we arrived, the police did. And so did the school therapist, and others.
The principal told us that had we not made it to the school and taken Jayden, the police would have.
In February 2020, I read the story of a 6-year-old girl in Jacksonville who threw a tantrum, cleared a room, and was taken to a mental health facility for an involuntary psychiatric exam. It hit home to me right then — what my family managed to avoid, and what another family could not.
Each year in Florida, more and more children are sent for involuntary psychiatric exams, and a quarter of those referrals originate from schools. These are children that have been deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. While there are a number of healthcare officials who can initiate Florida’s involuntary exam law, called the “Baker Act,” the only institution that can transport are sworn officers. When it comes to children, parents have no say. And the experience can be just as traumatizing for them as well as their children. And of the more than 36,000 Baker Acts performed on kids, state reports show up to a third of them may have been unnecessary.
The reason why children are increasingly caught up in a mental health system that wasn’t designed for them is complicated. My reporting set out to understand some of these causes. My project editor asked a question early on that stuck with me: “Who is the villain?” After all, every good story has a compelling villain, and surely, I thought, this one would too. I spoke with angry parents, still hurt and trying to grapple with what happened to their kids. They told me of the guilt they felt — that they couldn’t get to the school fast enough, that they missed the call. They spoke to me of the shame they felt, when the police cars pulled up to their homes and curious neighbors stood by, gawking. Above all, they told me of a sense of failure they had, that in a time when their child needed them the most, they couldn’t — or weren’t allowed — to be there.
I turned my attention to law enforcement. To schools. “Why?” I asked. “Isn’t there a better way?”
It’s hard to counter when a police officer tells you how he witnessed two teenage girls try to take their lives, and he speaks of the powerlessness he felt when he was unable to stop one of them. It’s hard to counter when you hear a teacher talk about how a little girl suddenly jumped on a desk and begin to howl and growl at her.
These experiences are real. And they happen every single day. In Florida, at least 10 times a day, based upon the state’s own data regarding the number of children sent for involuntary examinations each year.
I asked the question to parents — those parents who’d been powerless to stop their child from being involuntarily examined. I asked them, “Who is the villain?” And even then, their answers were complicated. One mother whose child was examined under the Baker Act for a bad joke in class told me, “My instinct about people is that most people do things with the best intentions.”
And this is the heart of it. Children are struggling more today than ever before. They reflect the pressure their parents are under, their neighborhoods are under. They reflect the pressure they themselves are under.
“You think about kids being resilient, but how much pressure are they under for them to think this was their only way out? That’s really sad,” said the officer who tried to save two girls, and failed with one of them.
The rise in Baker Act incidents among kids is also related to how we, as adults view them. “As something to be controlled, rather than understood,” explained one child psychologist.
There’s a lot of unaddressed needs, said a principal. So many of the kids she sees have dealt with a lot of traumatic experiences. And schools are more nervous than ever, especially after the 2018 shooting at a Parkland high school. No one wants to be the next Parkland.
Parkland changed a lot. The state poured hundreds of millions of dollars into shoring up school security and mental health partnerships. But in the first year after the legislature passed new laws in an effort to avoid another Parkland, the number of kids being Baker Acted went up by 5%.
But there are glimmers of hope.
Shortly after our reporting about kids and the Baker Act aired, I got a call from a foster mother who wanted to share the story of her foster son. He wanted to talk to me. And he told me of how he would use a “fake” threat to incur the Baker Act so he could get out of his group home. He had listened to our stories, and he wanted to share his, going so far as to pitch what he calls a “helper act”— pairing kids up with “helpers” when they are in crisis. Studies show that just one trusted adult in a child’s life can stave off serious consequences years down the line.
And there were more stories, too. I could have reported a lot on what schools were doing wrong when it came to student discipline, but I instead choose to focus on a school that was moving in a different direction by using trauma-informed techniques to help kids who had emotional difficulties. After that story aired, a local teacher in the same school district called. She wanted to know how to get in touch with that school. And so, I helped set up a meeting so that two schools could get to know one another.
More people began calling, emailing with their stories and perspectives. They wanted to know how we could keep the conversation going. Lawmakers perked up too. Florida’s annual lawmaking session begins in March, and there has already been one youth Baker Act reform bill filed, and we have been told more are on the way.
The outpouring of appreciation has been so strong that we are planning a second round of stories to continue the project. This isn’t about assigning blame, it’s about finding a way forward.
In journalism school, we are often taught to stay away from stories that are too personal. Too close. But sometimes, the most important story you do is the one that’s close to your heart. The most important thing I learned, is that when you open your heart to others, they’ll do the same for you. This experience has been rewarding to me. I have loved watching the conversations that are emerging, the movement that’s happening in my own little community. If I can help one teacher, one family, one child, then I consider my job well done.