Lawmakers Require Parental Notification For Youth Baker Acts, Advocates Cheer Bill's Passage

Parents have long fretted about schools’ ability to circumvent them in critical health decisions regarding their children. Now, those loopholes are getting smaller after the legislature approved provisions requiring parents be notified before their child is sent for an involuntary psychiatric exam. It's part of a years-long effort by parents rights groups and mental health advocates to curb the use of the state's Baker Act on children.

Beth Carr’s son was sent for an involuntary psychiatric exam in 2016 after what she describes as making a bad joke: her then-15-year-old said he liked the smell of gasoline.

“You know how kids are. They just say things. And his teacher was like, ‘Oh, you know who else likes the smell of gasoline? Sociopaths," Carr said. She was featured in WFSU and Health News Florida’s report on the Baker Act—a law that allows people to be involuntary sent for psychiatric examinations. Nearly 38,000 kids were Baker Acted in 2019 and a quarter of those referrals come from schools.

Florida law says parents have to be notified before a Baker Act is initiated, but that doesn’t always happen, just as the law says family members and friends should be allowed to intervene in some instances, but that’s often overlooked and ignored as well.

“In the case of children it was happening too much. Specifically in school settings," said the Citizens Commission on Human Rights' Diane Stein. The Commission runs a Baker Act Hotline and helps people navigate the mental health system. It’s affiliated with the Church of Scientology.

Florida lawmakers have tried for years to curb youth Baker Acts. This year, with the passage of parental notification measures, they may have finally moved the needle. Stein calls the bill's passage a big step forward.

“This change now requires them [school districts] to have this in their actual internal policy, whereas before it was optional, it was up to the school," Stein said.

She credited the "Committed" project for helping boost the issue this year.

Disability Rights Florida is also hailing the passage of the bill. Florida law says children with developmental Disabilities should not be Baker Acted, but that’s not always followed either. Disability Rights Florida’s Caitlin Clibbon says the measure is a step in the right direction and is pleased to see stronger data provisions in the bill: Like standardizing how districts report Baker Acts.

"It would provide uniformity and give us a good idea what’s going in every district, not just the ones that have robust data on their own," she said.

Still, there’s a lot left on the table, said Clibbon.

“I think we can be better tracking the outcomes, whether kids were admitted for treatment or evaluated and released, which would imply the Baker Act wasn’t necessary in the first place. I think we can do a better job of kids with disabilities…and then just breaking it down by demographic information.”

[This story was originally published by WFSU.]

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