What is the Florida Baker Act? How does it play a role in a mental health crisis?

You might see it in news reports, or you might hear people drop it in conversation: so-and-so is under the Baker Act, or so-and-so is detained under the Baker Act.

With the mental health crisis becoming prevalent and growing in Florida and across the country, the sad truth is that one day you or someone you know may have to deal with a Baker Act situation.

That’s what it means.

How does the Baker Act work?

The Baker Act is also known as the Florida Mental Health Act. The law was enacted in 1972 by Maxine Baker of Dade County, one of the first women in the Florida Legislature.

The Baker Act allows for involuntary detention and examination if a person is deemed to be suffering from a mental health crisis and poses a danger to themselves or others.

There are only three categories of people who can sponsor the Baker Act. According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, law enforcement officials initiated 53% of Baker Act cases in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, typically because someone called 911 to seek help for a loved one. Mental health professionals or physicians account for 45% of the Baker Act. Judicial orders account for the remaining 2%.

But just because you call someone to take action doesn’t mean it will happen. By law, law enforcement officers cannot directly detain someone.

Dr. Marni Stahlman, president of the Central Florida Mental Health Association, said if a family member may encounter another family member in crisis, call 911 and law enforcement will conduct a threat assessment. Law enforcement officers would not be able to fulfill the Baker Act if they were not actively suicidal or homicidal.

If they do pose a threat, the person is taken to a special conduct facility called a Baker Act Intake Facility (BARF). Patients can stay in the hospital for up to 72 hours to be evaluated and stabilized.

[RELATED: How to get mental health help in Central Florida]

What happens at the receiving facility?

Stahlman said the purpose of the Baker Act is not to provide treatment. Its purpose is to provide assessment, stabilization and development of a treatment plan.

Upon arrival at the receiving facility, the patient will be evaluated by a mental health professional. If they still meet Baker Act criteria, their condition will stabilize (sometimes with medication).

The patient should then go to see a magistrate or judge, where the BARF team will discuss a treatment plan. This may involve follow-up mental health appointments, information about obtaining medications, and planning for living arrangements, transportation, and other necessities to continue treatment. If the patient has no relatives, they are usually assigned a guardian.

But Stahlman said sometimes people involved in Baker’s behavior may be released before seeing a judge. Stahlman said the law presents a difficult balance for mental health care providers.

Hospitals must discharge patients if they don’t respond to the threats, she said. The goal is to provide them with the best level of appropriate care while respecting their rights.

Baker Act Issues

The downside to this is that sometimes a person ends up being played by Baker more than once.

DCF said that in fiscal year 2021-2022, 115,239 people took 170,048 Baker Act exams. The data showed that 22% of patients received multiple Baker Act tests within a year and 27% received multiple tests within three years.

Stahlman said repeat patients often occur among people who don’t have access to medications, either because they don’t have insurance or because they can’t get the medication or they won’t take it.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Stahlman said. They don’t have the money, transportation, resources, or good outpatient care associated with outpatient centers.

There’s also the stigma behind Baker’s actions, because while it’s not a crime, the patient does have a law enforcement record. This can affect a wide variety of applications, such as finding a job.

The experience alone is criminalized by law, Stahlman said, and those performed by Baker must be handcuffed and transported in a law enforcement vehicle.

Stahlman said when someone is in a mental health crisis that requires the Baker Act, you’re already in a state of trauma. You may not be able to cohere or understand anything going on around you. It was even more painful to be handcuffed and put in a police car to be transported to (the reception center).

Stahlman said lawmakers try to legalize the Baker Act every year, but they rarely make progress.

In some cities and counties, law enforcement agencies are working to reduce the need for Baker Act officers. For example, the Orlando Police Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Office have specialized units and are trained to mitigate mental health crises. Stahlman said in the two years since the program was implemented, data shows promise.

There is no question that the Florida Mental Health Act appears to have the right intentions on its face. But Stahlman says we’re still a long way from where we were in 1972. There are some things we need to look at differently.

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, you can call your local 211, or call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Trained dispatchers will help you find a way to get the care you need.

If you are experiencing an urgent emergency and need law enforcement assistance, please call 911.


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