In September 2016, a 6-year-old child threw a temper tantrum at his elementary school in Jacksonville. Usually, the story would end with the child being sent to the principal’s office for discipline, but, sadly for Nicholas, the child from this story, his journey didn’t end there.
Not knowing how to handle an unruly child, the school counselor contacted the local sheriff to pick the child up and drop him off at a psychiatric facility. Nicholas was held for three days against the wishes of his parents and had to wait more than 24 hours to see a psychiatrist. When the facility finally allowed his parents to take him home, Nicholas had suffered a bloody nose, scraped-up shins, and was in an overtired and almost hysterical state.
Under the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly known as the Baker Act, this is legal. The law is a well-intentioned attempt to promote public safety by allowing medical professionals at a mental health facility to hold an individual for up to 72 hours to conduct an evaluation of whether the patient is mentally ill and at risk of causing harm to themselves or others.
However well-intentioned the law is, it can sometimes produce appalling, unintended consequences, such as permitting a 6-year-old child to be held against the will of the child’s parents and endure a traumatic and perhaps a life-altering experience.
That is why I filed House Bill 1183, which would require receiving facilities to initiate medical review for involuntary examination of minors within 12 hours of arrival. The bill would also create a task force to bring accountability and transparency to involuntary examinations of minors in Florida.
While the Senate companion for HB 1183 was not able to get any traction, I worked with several members of the Senate and get the language attached to HB 1121, which also seeks to improve mental health in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott signed that bill into law on June 26.
The task force created in HB 1183 is composed of stakeholders that include experienced experts from the mental health, education, and law enforcement industries, as well as a representative from a family whose child has been brought to a mental health facility for involuntary examination. The task force will analyze data on the initiation of involuntary examinations of children, looking for trends and potential solutions to improve the process and outcome of these situations. I truly believe using this data will improve safety, treatment and the experience of those receiving care through our mental health system.
Working toward solutions that will improve our mental health system and benefit all Floridians should be a priority for every legislator in Tallahassee. I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to work for my neighbors and for all Floridians to ensure that we have access to a health care system that reflects the importance of mental health for the future of our state.