Last week in Florida, 6-year-old Nadia King was taken from her public school by police and committed to a mental health facility, all before her mother was contacted or notified.
Fortunately, change is coming to Florida—but it looks like it can’t get there soon enough.
Another Victim of the Baker Act
Under a 50-year-old Florida law called the “Baker Act,” a mental health professional can place a child in a mental health facility for testing via involuntary commitment without parental consent if the mental health professional deems the child to be a threat to the safety of themselves or others.
“The law was meant to allow intervention in cases of imminent danger, said Mark Cavitt, the director of Pediatric Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg,” according to an article in The Washington Post. Instead, Baker Act is used too often “because of inadequate training or resources for mental health inside the school system.”
According to a report from the Tampa Bay Times last year, roughly 7,500 Baker Act incidents have occurred since 2012—roughly 1,000 per year. That’s more cases than just those involving “imminent harm.”
Nadia did throw a temper tantrum at school. Though she was perfectly calm, even “pleasant” by the time officers picked her up, faculty reported that she had been throwing items around the room. It is possible someone was going to get hurt.
But is it really the kind of mental breakdown demanding involuntary commitment to an institution? Or could it be “merely a negative reaction to stress,” as Enrico Gnaulati suggests in Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Gnaulti points out that schools today confront children with academic and social expectations beyond the children’s levels of development, while simultaneously taking away “the means to cope with that stress—animated, kinetic, imaginative play.”
Perhaps most shocking of all is that, despite the school’s claims that they made efforts to “de-escalate” the crisis before Nadia was hauled off, apparently none of those de-escalation efforts included contacting the girl’s mother.
By the time Martina Falk learned her daughter was having a tantrum, Nadia was already on her way to the mental health facility.
Fortunately, however, the days of schools, doctors, counselors, and others intruding into the private lives of families may be coming to an end in the Sunshine State.
Parents’ Bill of Rights to the Rescue?
While by no means a response to the Baker Act, Senate Bill 1634 and House Bill 1059, companion bills proposing the Parents’ Bill of Rights, would strengthen the role of parents like Martina in the lives of their children. By clearly outlining various rights parents have in raising their children, the law would keep the child’s caregivers from being cut out of these vital child-healthcare decisions.
This concept should already be a no-brainer. The US Supreme Court in 1979’s Parham v. J.R. made clear that, because children are not able to make wise and informed decisions for their own health care or mental health much of the time, “parents can and must make those decisions.”
Parents. Not teachers, or administrators, or even a third-party psychiatric evaluator.
Sure, there are times emergency intervention is necessary, such as when a teen is suicidal (or even homicidal). But such interventions should be saved for times that actually are emergencies.
Thankfully, the Parents’ Bill of Rights has been having a better month than Martina and her daughter have.
Already passed by the House Education and Health and Human Services Committees, H.B. 1059 passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, February 18—its final house committee vote. Its next stop is the full House.
Its counterpart, S.B. 1634, has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Education Committee and awaits a hearing and vote in the Senate Rules Committee. Only then can it be voted up or down in the full Senate.
Should each bill pass its respective house, the crossover is mainly procedural. We even have early indications that the governor is aware of the bill and ready to sign it into law.
“You Don’t Own My Vote”
Of course, not everyone likes the Parents’ Bill of Rights. Planned Parenthood of Florida and Florida Equality have both been present and vocal against the bills in multiple committee hearings.
I’m told that, in one hearing, a minority Democratic committee member told Planned Parenthood’s representatives, “You didn’t buy me and you don’t own my vote. I know what you want me to do. But the parents in my district are the ones who put me here. They voted for me. And they want to have a say in their children’s lives.”
It’s my personal favorite “If only I could have been a fly on the wall” moment from all these hearings. How I would love to have seen a video of that! (And not because it was Planned Parenthood, but because it was any special interest group rising to oppose the natural legal rights of parents.)
If passed, the Parents’ Bill of Rights will not suddenly halt all the abuses of the 50-year-old Baker Act. But it will raise the status of parents in the eyes of courts, schools, and administrations throughout Florida—and that itself should help to reduce abuses like the one Nadia and her mother suffered last week.
In fact, families like theirs are the reason we fight to preserve parental rights in every state, and why we are so excited to see these gains in Florida!