We’re Leonora LaPeter Anton, Megan Reeves and Jack Evans, reporters at the Tampa Bay Times. We recently published two reports (here and here) in our Powerless series on Florida's Baker Act. The law was meant to help people in mental health crises, but our investigations revealed glaring flaws in its use on kids. 

Nearly 100 children a day across Florida end up at mental health facilities, with more than 36,000 placed under the Baker Act last year. The state isn't even tracking its use at public schools, so we built a database. We found it's been applied at least 7,500 times in Tampa Bay's public schools since 2013, and probably far more. Most decisions were made by law enforcement with little training instead of mental health professionals. An expert says the Baker Act is abused statewide and used as a way to get kids out of school.

One disturbing aspect we learned: Parents and guardians often have no say. We spoke to families where autistic children ended up in police cruisers, despite their individualized education plans and no mental health diagnoses. Families say they were traumatized. Some facilities even put them in harm's way.

Ask us anything.



Edit: Great questions, y'all! Keep them coming. We'll keep an eye on this throughout the day as we work on our other projects. For more background, you can check out our story on the Baker Act's history and short experiences from families.

Edit 2: Thanks for all the wonderful, thoughtful questions, folks. It means a lot that you'd all engage enough with the stories to participate here. We're all headed home for the day, but we'll swing back by here in the morning to do a last round of question-answering. Otherwise, feel free to reach us on Twitter: WriterLeonora, mareevs and JackHEvans. Have a great day!

Comments: 659 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

Atalantius538 karma

What help is there for people getting caught in the system? How would you propose to change the system, so that the spirit of the law is still there, but harder to abuse? Or would you abolish it alltogether?

JackHEvans416 karma

Starting with your last two questions: We don't think it's necessarily our place to propose policy changes, but there was some consensus among people we interviewed with regard to the flaws we uncovered — perhaps most notably, all of the mental health experts we spoke to wanted to have a larger role (e.g., not be shut out by school district policy) in how the Baker Act is used in schools, and the law enforcement professionals we spoke with said they'd be in favor of mental health experts having bigger roles (and some, such as Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, even said they think police are particularly unqualified to be the ones dealing with this issue).
Something that kind of answers all of your questions is that change can happen when people speak out. Our colleague Neil Bedi reported earlier this year on how a hospital near Tampa was holding patients longer than allowed by law; the state investigated and found that the CEO — who has since left that job — was unqualified for the job. A state investigation found other major problems there, too, and now has ordered the company that runs the hospital to fix it. Of course, this is a traumatic subject for many people; we'd never expect everyone to be open to speaking publicly about their experiences, and we deeply appreciate the bravery and candor of the folks who talked to us for these stories.

the_entire_pizza101 karma

Hi, I'm a journalist from Orlando.

I was baked by the mental health counselors at UCF several years ago. I recovered and began a career in spite of this, but the experience was traumatic and I've been sitting on the idea of writing an article for a long time.

In Orlando, the Tampa Bay Times are well respected for the investigative journalism that goes on. From your personal experience, investigating the issue, could I expect any legal backlash from the hospital that I was locked in, or from my alma mater, if I write about what they did to me, and how it made me feel?

JackHEvans77 karma

Hey, this is a really interesting question. First, big flashing-lights disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer! If you're worried about keeping yourself covered legally, my professional recommendation would be to talk to an attorney, preferably someone with first-amendment or media law expertise.

That being said: From my experience as a journalist, there are lots of ways you could back yourself up on a story like that. You should have complete access to all of your medical records, and you should be able to get a hold of unredacted copies of any police reports, etc., generated in the course of the Baker Act being used on you (though those won't exist if law enforcement wasn't involved). As you probably know as a journalist, documents can tell one hell of a story by themselves. You could also try to interview those close to you at the time of the incident and in its wake, as well as any therapists or other professionals you were seeing at the time or have seen in the years since — essentially, report out your own life.

If you do write something, by the way, I'd love to read it.

godessnerd57 karma

Have you guys ever seen cases of kids being taken without any good reason? Like a schools didn’t want to deal with them or they were just doing things on a hunch?

JackHEvans87 karma

It's tricky to answer that question definitively, because — even though we've learned an awful lot about these issues — we're not mental health experts, plus, because of the frankly skimpy record-keeping often done in these cases, it's often impossible to know exactly what happened in full leading to the use of the Baker Act. What I can say is that we reviewed more than 350 police reports that described the use of the Baker Act, and some of them struck us as being far from meeting the criteria that the statute calls for to take someone into custody. There's a good example in the story that Megan and I wrote, of a report where a deputy describes placing a child under the Baker Act "due to (his) autism" and "in lieu of placing him under arrest" — even though autism is not considered a mental illness (and thus doesn't meet Baker Act criteria), and even though the Baker Act is not meant to be used as a disciplinary or punitive action. Then there are cases like those of many of the families we interviewed, where doctors and other mental health experts who have examined the children have said, after the Baker Act was used on them, that the kids didn't have a mental illness. And across those hundreds of police reports, we certainly came across dozens of other questionable uses of the Baker Act.

TraceyMcManus36 karma

I'm curious to hear more about how the Baker Act experiences affected the kids months/years later. How did being Baker Acted impact them in their daily lives?

JackHEvans45 karma

One thing that didn't make it into our stories but has been rattling around in my brain through the whole reporting process: One of the children I interviewed told me that other kids at school found out he'd been Baker Acted and cornered him about it. I asked him what that felt like. He told me that it felt like he was a superhero who'd just had his secret identity revealed in front of everyone.

Himuura22 karma

Are there racial disparities in those subject to detention?

JackHEvans41 karma

That's a great question. We quickly found out that we wouldn't be able to get a clear answer, at least with the means we had available to analyze police reports. In most of the police reports we requested, identifying information — such as names, of course, but also gender, race, even school grade — were redacted. The format of incident reports and the amount of redaction varied wildly from department to department: Some were almost totally untouched, while others were so heavily redacted it was impossible to tell what even happened. Whether there's any racial disparity is definitely something we're curious about, though, and it's worth us looking for other ways to attack that question as we move forward.

son_et_lumiere15 karma

Why are there such great discrepancies in the redacting of reports? Are some agencies giving out too much confidential information? Or are other agencies hiding what should be public information?

JackHEvans12 karma

Another great question. The short answer is that different agencies sometimes have different interpretations of statutes that determine when records are considered "confidential" or "exempt." There are ways we can and have pushed back on that — involving an attorney, showing an agency with a redaction problem what we've gotten from other agencies — that sometimes help, but we can't always get consistent results.

AngierCutterBorden17 karma

Have you all learned of any efforts by the state of Florida to do something about these flaws since your stories have been published?

JackHEvans15 karma

Thanks for asking — the stories the three of us wrote have only published in the past week, and we haven't heard of systemic action being taken to correct the flaws. That often takes a while, though, and stories like this can make it happen: Back in September, our colleague Neil Bedi wrote the first story in this series, about a psychiatric hospital that was holding patients for longer than legally allowed. Earlier this month, the state announced that it had investigated the hospital and found serious problems, including that the CEO wasn't qualified for his job, and they've ordered the hospital to make major changes.

ShirePony9 karma

Of the 7,500 instances the Baker Act has been invoked, can you say how many times were legitmate and intended use cases? Is this law being abused in the majority of cases or just a select few instances where some fine tuning of the law would help prevent it?

JackHEvans10 karma

I wish we knew! As we mention in one of the stories, we reviewed hundreds of police reports to get an idea of trends in how these scenarios play out. That in and of itself was a huge undertaking, and it wasn't anywhere near the full 7,500. As we reviewed those hundreds, we "flagged" somewhere around a fifth of them — meaning they seemed possibly questionable or wrongful or bizarre. But determining whether they were actually illegitimate uses is hard for two reasons: 1. We're not mental health experts, so even though we've learned an awful lot about this law and how it's supposed to be applied, we're really not qualified to make those final decisions; and 2. Police reports vary widely in how much information they offer. Some have pages upon pages of in-depth narrative; some have only a few sentences; some are so heavily redacted it's impossible to tell what's even going on. Of course, there are some pretty clearly questionable situations, like the ones we highlight in the stories. But what we're hoping to show overall is those systematic flaws that the trends reveal — experts being locked out of the decision-making process, parents left in the dark, etc.

BrutusXj5 karma

Hi, great work you're all doing! Thanks for doing this AMA. Kind of unrelated but related.

I've noticed a significant correlation between what's happening with the baker act, and Red Flag Laws.

You have said it's not your place to propose policy changes; for what you've uncovered. Even though you're one of the most informed about the subject and its flaws.

My question is, what's your view on the Baker Act, and Red Flag laws majority wise; being used for nefarious reasons? How would it be suggested to share the information uncovered about the dangers these bring? Yes they both have their purposes, are were written with no ill-intent. However that's unfortunately not the case, and are being abused.

JackHEvans7 karma

Hi, thanks for the kind words! We don't want to suggest that the Baker Act is used wrongly a majority of the time — we simply don't have the data to back that up (and I've talked in more detail a couple of other places in this AMA about how difficult it is from our perspective to definitively peg a Baker Act usage as "wrongful"). As far as the best ways for uncovering and sharing the problems with the system: That's exactly what we're trying to do now. We hope the story will get in front of as many sets of eyes as it possibly can.

Re: Red Flag laws: I am so far from being an expert on these that all I'm going to do is point out that our colleague Sue Carlton has gone in-depth on how Florida's red flag law has been used so far.

BnaiRephaim5 karma

My question is more about building the database. What resources did you have?

How do you even start to approach such task?

What was the most helpful source? Families, schools, police records, legal docs, mental health facilities?

JackHEvans10 karma

Hello! I'm delighted to answer this question!

We knew it'd be a challenge because, simply put, nothing quite like it existed, and because many of the documents generated when the Baker Act is used are confidential medical records. Then we realized: Whenever police or sheriffs' deputies do just about anything, they have to file an incident report. So we filed public records requests asking law enforcement agencies to give us spreadsheets showing every Baker Act report they had on file for a public school address since the beginning of 2013 (in these cases, we weren't asking for all the full reports — we knew that'd be impossibly expensive — just sets of dates and locations, basically). That formed the spine of our database, though we immediately realized that we would never be able to see the entire picture, because of how different agencies are in their record keeping habits (some couldn't provide information that far back, for example). We also found out that one of the four school districts in our area — Pinellas County schools — does keep track of when kids are Baker Acted in schools (because it's the only district here that allows mental health professionals on staff to use the Baker Act) — we couldn't get a list of dates and places where it had been used, but we got a year-by-year breakdown, which we factored into the annual totals we arrived at.

Next, we knew we wanted to qualitatively analyze a bunch of incidents, to find out things like whether mental health professionals were being consulted in these decisions and how early parents were being notified (some of our colleagues here who have done more data work than we had were hugely helpful in showing us how to proceed here). We knew we'd need a representative sample — i.e. one with a low margin of error on the outcomes of those questions — so we decided to request a few hundred full reports from agencies across our area (we used a random-number generator in conjunction with our database to decide which reports to request). Then we analyzed those.

tl;dr: Police reports and other public law enforcement records were our biggest help here (even though getting them could sometimes be a pain, and even though they sometimes came to us with heavy redactions). Of course, the story wouldn't exist without the families we interviewed — the data is interesting, but having their emotions and humanity is what makes the stories (we hope) compelling.

jrhoffa3 karma

More often than what?

JackHEvans5 karma

Sorry for any confusion there! Should be something like "increasingly often" — the numbers are going up, basically.