County, state see a rise in children committed for mental-health evaluations


Kimberly C. Moore

LAKELAND — Kirk Fasshauer remembers a young man at a Lakeland area school who was threatening to hurt himself after being bullied and repeatedly told by a classmate that he should die and nobody liked him, plunging the boy into a major depression.

“He was Baker Acted for a few days,” said Fasshauer, the director of crisis services for Peace River Center, a Polk County mental-health agency. “Baker Acting is really the start of treatment, buying an instant ticket to see a psychiatrist.”

The number of children in Florida and Polk County who are being involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility under the Baker Act has risen sharply, data with the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida shows.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has said repeatedly that he wants to see “more teeth” put in the Baker Act. On Friday, Judd, along with state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, announced a multi-tiered approach to dealing with school safety, including temporarily taking firearms away from “troubled individuals.”

“Now, when we go to the house and we see the texts, the emails, the photographs and the really violent rambling of an individual, but there’s not a specific threat, we can’t make an arrest,” Judd said recently. “If we don’t see any immediate mental-health issue, we can’t Baker Act. Just give us the tools.”

In 1971, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Mental Health Act, which is commonly referred to as the Baker Act. The law strengthened the legal and civil rights of individuals receiving treatment in the state’s public mental-health system. It allows people, including minors, to be involuntarily held up to 72 hours for mental-health evaluations and treatment. It can be initiated by judges, law enforcement, physicians or mental-health professionals if there is evidence that the person:

• Possibly has a mental illness.

• Is in danger of harming his or her self or others.

• Or is self-neglectful.

Last year, the Peace River Center received about 61 Baker Acted children a month at its Bartow facility — about two a day — and Fasshauer said he has seen a spike in cases in the last week and a half since the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center also treats children who have been Baker Acted.

“It’s not unusual after events like that in Parkland,” Fasshauer said. “It’s a matter of more heightened sensitivity to the issue, and people are quicker to respond.”

The USF institute participated in a task force on the involuntary examination of minors under the Baker Act. It issued a report to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in November.

The report showed that 32,475 Florida children younger than 18 were involuntarily examined under the Baker Act between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016. That number was a 49 percent increase compared with 2010-11. And it is more than twice the number of children who were Baker Acted in 2001-02, when nearly 15,000 children were ordered to be evaluated.

In Polk County, the rise was even sharper. Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, 727 children in Polk County were Baker Acted. In 2015-16, more than 1,723 children were involuntarily committed – a 137 percent increase.

Peace River Center recently opened a new facility in Lakeland, with beds for 10 juveniles and 10 adults. Both facilities can treat children as young as 4 years old. Fasshauer said it is shocking to see someone that young undergoing a mental-health evaluation. One 4-year-old boy was recently admitted in Bartow.

“The little guy was quite a handful – there was a lot of acting out, hitting himself, running and very hyper-activity, and very difficult to control,” Fasshauer said. The parents were definitely overwhelmed by that young man.”

Fasshauer said there are a number of factors contributing to the rise in mental-health issues among children.

“I think it has to do with additional pressures being put on kids at school, the quick access to the internet and social media that everybody has, and, of course, the bullying going on,” Fasshauer said. “It’s easier to type something than it is to say something to someone’s face.”

He added that news reports about shootings that are played over and over again in the media contribute to children’s depression and anxiety.

Annette Christy, the director of the Baker Act Center at USF, said juvenile crime is actually declining, possibly because a law changed in recent years that allows law enforcement to give juveniles citations for minor offenses rather than arrest them. She said another reason why Baker Acts might be going up is because there is a national emphasis on Mental Health First Aid, a program that trains the public to recognize mental issues.

In the past 10 years, more than 20,000 Florida adults and 17,000 Florida youth underwent an eight‐hour course that teaches people to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance-use disorders.

“Almost a million people nationally are trained,” Christy said. “If people are paying attention more and are aware, that could lead to more Baker Acts.”

The schools’ role

Fasshauer said they work with the school district to help identify and treat students in crisis. According to The Baker Act 2015-2016 Annual Report, more than 20 percent of the children who were Baker Acted in Florida were picked up from a school.

In the 2016-17 school year, the Polk County School District referred about 7,000 students to community-service providers. The district employs 200 school counselors and an additional 38 school psychologists. However, according to Jason Geary, a spokesman for the School District, only Exceptional Student Education students have access to mental-health counseling, and only if those students have counseling needs identified on their Individual Education Plan.

The district uses a computer system to monitor students’ district-issued email addresses and documents stored on the district’s domain. This system monitors for threats of violence or bullying and notifies members of the Safe Schools staff. The latest threat was Feb. 15, when a student was found to be suicidal. The student was treated.

Geary added that last year, there were 118 threat assessments, but none was “referred for additional resources or support.”

Funding lags in Florida

According to the report on involuntary examinations, Florida is consistently at or near the bottom of the nation in funding for mental-health entities. In 2012, the last year for which data was available, Florida was 50th.

Funding is increasing for community mental health for people of all ages under the Florida Department of Children and Families. In Fiscal Year 2015-16, the state allocated $396.6 million. In 2016-17, that total increased by an additional $30 million, and in 2017-18, the state allocated $430 million.

Researchers with the mental-health institute at USF reviewed case files from Alachua, Broward and Pinellas counties of youth whose behavior was deemed “at risk.”

“At each of the agencies we visited, there is an array of services available for the youth to address their risk behaviors,” the report states. “However, the reviews and interviews indicated that there is a lack of community support services for youth and their families following discharge from treatment, especially for youth who are turning 18 years of age.”

The report said that “access to prevention and early intervention services is critical to reducing the number of minors having a Baker Act initiated,” but went on to say that there are areas across the state “where options short of a Baker Act are limited or nonexistent.”

A 2016 study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, showed that the number of teens and young adults experiencing a major depressive episode increased by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014, with no “corresponding increase in mental health treatment for this population during this time.”

Kimberly C. Moore can be contacted at kmoore@theledger.com.