Overuse of Baker Acts
The number of children with autism in Volusia County who are Baker Acted is up 500% over four years, even though experts say it will almost never help that child overcome whatever behaviors they’re exhibiting.
Twelve-year-old Nate Flo was having a bad day.
As his unruly behavior escalated, his mom laid down boundaries, reminding him that she's the parent. What she says goes.
But on this particular day a few years ago, Nate — who has autism spectrum disorder, which affects social, behavioral and communication skills — went over the edge. He ran outside their Deltona home, grabbed a fallen palm tree branch and started swinging it at her.
“At that point, I knew I couldn’t control it,” said Shannon Flo, thinking of her two younger children. “He was probably going to get more aggressive. So I called the Sheriff’s Office."
Deputies took Nate to Halifax Health in Daytona Beach, one of about a dozen times he's gone to the hospital under Florida's Baker Act, including six times when he was removed from his elementary school.
Nate isn't the only child with autism to be temporarily detained for involuntary psychological evaluation because authorities fear they could do harm to themselves or others.
The number of children with autism in Volusia County who are Baker Acted is soaring, up 500% over four years, even though experts in the fields of mental health, education and law enforcement all say holding a child with autism for an involuntary evaluation will almost never help that child overcome whatever behaviors they’re exhibiting.
But when they don't know what else to do, parents and law enforcement officers admit they turn to the Baker Act when dealing with sometimes explosive behaviors from these children.
It can be even worse for educators who aren't thoroughly trained to help students manage their behaviors. Parents of children with autism fear schools have become overly reliant on using the Baker Act with troubled children, including those with autism.
Hospital officials agree that's a possibility, but until recently no one was tracking how many times schools call on law enforcement to use the Baker Act to take children for a mental evaluation.
With the U.S. Department of Justice investigating the Volusia school district for alleged discrimination against students with autism, The News-Journal spent four months delving into questions about the support services these children are legally entitled to receive.
Among the newspaper's findings: Because of a lack of training, staffing and funding, school personnel struggle to help children with autism succeed when they are included in general education classrooms.
The Volusia County administrator who oversees the school district’s efforts to educate students with disabilities said school personnel wouldn’t use the Baker Act as a form of discipline against students with autism.
But some parents of children with autism enrolled in Volusia schools complained to the DOJ because they felt educators were using the Baker Act as a way to get disorderly students out of the classroom.
Nationally, the number of children with autism doubled over the past 10 years, but in Volusia County school system the number has more than tripled. Last year the district enrolled 1,122 students with autism among an overall student population of 63,000.
Researchers can't explain why there's been an increase in the number of children with autism, and local officials can't explain why the number of those children who've been Baker Acted has increased even more.
Last year 115 children with autism in Volusia County were taken under the Baker Act to Halifax Health — the only Baker Act intake facility for minors in Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties. That represents a 37% increase over the previous year and is six times higher than the 19 children with autism who were Baker Acted four years earlier.
That's a disturbing trend to Jim Terry, a service line administrator for child and adolescent behavioral services at Halifax Health, who said the kind of long-term behavioral interventions children with autism need can't be provided under a temporary Baker Act hold.
While the hospital saw a similar year-over-year increase in the total number of children brought in under the Baker Act, Terry said detaining children with autism can do more harm than good in most instances, mainly because the environment is not one they are used to. Even if the child isn’t traumatized by their change of environment, he said nothing will change for a child with autism in the 72-hour involuntary hold permitted under the Baker Act.
“If we throw them in a chaotic environment, all we’re doing is exacerbating the issue, and then we’re going to discharge them and they’re going to not be any better,” he said.
That's the sort of reaction Nate recalls from an incident a little over a year ago when his mom said he was removed from his school after getting worked up and making vague threats and put in the back of the police car.
“With the officers, I didn’t know any of them,” he said. “They just grabbed me and threw me in the back of the car.”
He slammed a seat belt against the car windows, his mother said, cracking the glass in his efforts to escape.
“When they throw me into a tiny space, it makes it worse,” Nate said.
But law enforcement officers have little recourse in situations where they’re called to respond to a child with autism having a crisis, other than to take them to Halifax Health under the Baker Act or arrest them. More experienced officers might take the time to help de-escalate the situation, but it’s not always possible.
“We are trying to handle a non-criminal matter with what alternatives we have,” said Volusia County Sheriff’s Det. Bill Weaver, a former patrol deputy who has experience working with families of children with autism. “Law enforcement only has a few alternatives. … I’m not taking these kids to the Department of Juvenile Justice. That’s not where they belong.”
Weaver said it’s hard to make the right decisions regarding run-ins with children with autism, made even worse by the lack of resources for them.
“We don’t have a system set up to deal with children with autism,” Weaver said. “When they do have a meltdown and law enforcement gets called, sometimes we make the right choice. Sometimes we don’t.”
Educators don't have it any easier. In Volusia, one-third of the school district's vacancies in July were for teachers certified in exceptional student education, and teachers are not required to complete any specific training before working with students with autism. Federal and state funding for additional services — like paraprofessionals or specially trained teachers — hasn't kept up with the growing population of students with autism who need the services.
According to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities are allowed to be suspended for no more than 10 days in a school year. Once they reach 10 days, the school is required to hold a meeting with the parents to adjust the legally binding document that outlines the services each student with disabilities must get, called the individualized education plan.
Jasmine Harper’s 12-year-old son Jordan, who’s on the autism spectrum, faced repeated Baker Acts from his elementary school after they suspended him 10 times.
After reaching the 10-suspension threshold, the school started calling the police, Harper said, when Jordan was being mouthy in class, having meltdowns when confronted by school authority figures and running away from the school — all of which were manifestations of his disability.
“Jordan kept getting Baker Acted,” she said. “Every time I'd turn around and drop him off, they’d call me and say I have to pick him up or they’ll Baker Act him.”
In total, Jordan was taken to Halifax six times from his elementary school. At this point, Harper said he’s so comfortable with the staff there, he looks forward to seeing them.
He was only admitted a few of those times though, when he got angry at the police and said things like, “I’m going to kill everybody.” Harper said he was always released after a day or two.
The Harpers' experience is consistent with what experts say about children with autism and the Baker Act — that it should only be a last resort.
“When they act out in school, they need systems in place, additional staff and services," said Halifax's Terry. "There’s just not enough resources (at school) to help those kids the way they need.”
“What they need is somebody who is familiar with behavioral intervention,” said JoEllen Rogers, a board-certified behavior analyst with Easterseals and a licensed school psychologist. “That is a huge piece of what an individual on the spectrum needs, in and out of school.”
Frequent Baker Acts are part of the reason parents like Harper went to Katie Kelly, a civil rights attorney with Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. Kelly filed a complaint with the DOJ alleging multiple forms of discrimination, including the overuse of the Baker Act as an improper means of disciplining students with disabilities.
Kelly, who generally represents between 30 and 50 Volusia County parents at any given time, said 90 percent of her clients in the complaint have stories similar to the Harpers’, although she’s seen a decline in school-related Baker Acts being used so often in schools since filing the complaint in 2017.
‘“For a while it was rampant,” Kelly said. “I mean it was constant. You would get to 10 (suspensions) and you could literally hold your breath in the amount of time before the Baker Acts started.”
Dawn Starr, a parent advocate in Volusia County whom families hire to help them get the services they're legally entitled to from the school district, said many of her clients are afraid of their children with autism being Baker Acted from their schools.
“Administrators will threaten parents with a Baker Act if they start questioning too much. Then they expect the parents to be grateful that they didn’t do that,” she said. “That’s really a traumatic thing for a kid to go through, especially if they get transferred by the police and their parent isn’t there.”
Kim Gilliland, director of exceptional student education for the Volusia County school district, said she was not aware of students being Baker Acted as a form of discipline and that the district's process doesn't support that action.
"I have not seen anything that would support that,” she said.
Gilliland said the only time the school should call police to Baker Act a student would be when that student is suicidal or homicidal.
“Even people with Baker Acting authority may make the wrong decision,” she said. “I would say that most of those professionals are going to err on the side of caution to make sure that they are appropriately supporting the student.”
And like other mental health practitioners who spoke with the News-Journal, she emphasized that the goal isn't necessarily a reduction in Baker Acts. It's making sure that Baker Acts are appropriate for the situation.
Getting a handle on that has been difficult. Law enforcement agencies have inconsistent or unreliable data that doesn't always reflect how an officer responds to a call for help. On the flip side, Halifax Health knows how many minors are brought in under the Baker Act, but it doesn't track where they came from.
Going forward, the Volusia school district should have a better idea how often it uses the Baker Act on students. Before February, no one tracked the number. District staff told the School Board in June that there were about 30 over the last three months of the school year.
Terry from Halifax Health sees the increasing use of the Baker Act for children with autism as evidence that there aren't enough resources in the county for them, let alone treatment systems for them. When asked what could be done better, he said educating officers, parents and educators to give the child with autism a chance to calm down and then bring them home.
“I feel for those parents because they struggle with kids that are getting older, bigger and stronger and get violent and aggressive,” Terry said. “It’s really hard for family members to understand the whole issue of what the Baker Act is intended for. The Baker Act by law is intended to evaluate, not to necessarily treat.”
Time and patience can make a difference. For Nate, it was just a matter of figuring out how to adjust his behavior. He now carries a small photo album in his pocket with pictures of his 8-year-old ginger cat named Percy. When he feels overwhelmed, he knows what to do.
“I just pull it out and hide myself in a corner,” Nate said. “I just need like 20 minutes. Then when I’m all done, they can actually talk to me about what happened.”
After finding this coping mechanism, coupled with a new medication, a switch to homeschooling and a little growing up, Nate hasn’t been Baker Acted for more than a year.
As for Jordan, he hasn’t been taken to Halifax Health since starting middle school. His mom said things are slowly getting better -- which Kelly pointed out is the whole point of putting students with autism in general education classrooms with appropriate supports and services.
“Our whole goal for individuals who have these behaviors is to set them up so that they can deal with things that seem easy to be dealt with by a typical child,” said Rogers, the behavioral specialist. “So they can deal with this on a regular basis.”
About this project
With the U.S. Department of Justice investigating the Volusia County school district over complaints about discrimination against children with autism, News-Journal reporters Cassidy Alexander and Nikki Ross spent four months combing through records and interviewing parents, educators and experts about the issues confronting the schools. One major takeaway: While the number of children with autism in Volusia schools has more than tripled over the past decade, the resources to meet their needs haven't kept pace.
And they still don’t think they’re done. If you’re a parent of a child with autism or another disability, and you have a story you think they should know about, reach out.
Nikki Ross: email@example.com; 386-681-2559
Cassidy Alexander: firstname.lastname@example.org; 386-681-2283