Mental health issues are often difficult for society to manage, especially in situations where troubled individuals refuse to seek the help they might need. This can be particularly problematic in cases where someone with a possible mental illness is believed to be a potential threat to himself or others. Some jurisdictions have attempted to cope with those concerns through legislation that allows involuntary institutionalization for mental health examination. The Florida Mental Health Act of 1971 – otherwise known as the Baker Act provides certain persons with the power to temporarily send potentially troubled individuals to mental health institutions.
But what happens when you Baker Act someone?
What is the Baker Act?
The Baker Act is an existing law that provides for temporary institutionalization of individuals who meet certain criteria. It can only be used by specific authorized persons, including judges, mental health professionals, law enforcement personnel, and doctors. More importantly, the law is limited by the fact that those officials must have sound evidence suggesting that the individual might meet the Act’s definition for mental illness. In addition, he must pose a risk of harm to himself or others – or demonstrate self-neglect.
It should be noted that the statutory criteria require more than mere suspicion of mental illness or potential risk. The statute specifically calls for “substantial” evidence, which is much higher bar than simple suspicion. As a result, people cannot be involuntarily institutionalized simply because they’re acting strangely, refuse to seek psychiatric examinations, or have occasional mood swings or outbursts.
There must be ample evidence of possible mental illness, coupled with a strong potential for harm to self or others. Typically, that requires some sort of recent behavior that suggests a serious risk.
How Does the Baker Act Work?
When an individual is believed to meet the statutory criteria for involuntary institutionalization, he or she is taken into custody and delivered to a mental health facility for examination. The law applies equally to all persons in Florida, regardless of age. There are, however, some differences in the amount of time that adults and minors can be held. The facility can hold an adult for no more than 72 hours, during which an involuntary mental health examination will be performed. Minors can only be held for 12 hours before the examination is initiated.
If the patient is held for longer than 12 hours, the law requires that he or she be examined by a health care professional within the first 24 hours of institutionalization. That examination must include an assessment of the patient’s medical stability, and must determine whether there are other factors at play other than psychiatric problems.
Facilities are required to provide notice to patient guardians, attorneys or other representatives no later than 24 hours after admission, and must document all contact attempts. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility – though that parent or guardian notification can be delayed by a full day if the facility suspects abuse and has contacted the appropriate central abuse hotline.
The Baker Act Process
The formal process for using the Baker Act is fairly straightforward. As noted, only judges, health care and mental health professionals, and law enforcement personnel can initiate the proceedings. To do that, there are certain procedural requirements that they must follow:
• Judges can issue what are known as “ex parte” orders. That type of order is used when the court has only heard from one side in a controversy. Typically, the court will be presented with evidence that a person could be suffering from mental health issues that make him or her a risk to self or others. If the judge finds that the evidence is compelling, an order will be issued to direct law enforcement instructing them to deliver the person to a mental health facility for examination.
• Medical and psychiatric personnel have a different process to follow when they use the Act. Doctors, social workers, and mental health professionals need to provide formal certification of a recent (within the prior 48 hours) examination that revealed that the patient is a candidate for involuntary commitment. That certificate is given to law enforcement personnel, who then take the person into custody and transport him to an examination facility.
• Law enforcement personnel are permitted to deliver anyone who seems to be risk to himself or others to an appropriate mental health facility.
Voluntary Baker Act Admissions
The Baker Act also allows for adults to voluntarily apply for temporary institutionalization at a facility. This voluntary admission can also be used by parents who want to have their minor children examined at such a facility. Once there, the patient will be examined by facility personnel, and an assessment will be made of his or her mental health and potential for harming self or others. When the problem can be attributed to something other than psychiatric concerns, the patient will often be released. In cases where mental health issues require intervention, a treatment plan will be developed.
Thought these types of admissions are technically voluntary, patients should understand that they may be detained at the facility for up to 24 hours after they request to leave. That delay is required to provide facility personnel with the time they need to determine whether an involuntary examination or treatment is required. In cases where that intervention is believed to be necessary, the facility has two days to file a petition asking the court to involuntarily commit the patient.
After the Examination
Once the examination is complete, one of several things shall happen:
• If no intervention is needed, the patient will be released – unless, of course, the patient has been formally charged with criminal activity. In that case, he or she would be remanded to the custody of law enforcement officers.
• The patient may be asked to provide voluntary consent for admission, to receive any needed treatment.
• The patient may be released with a recommendation for outpatient mental health treatment. That treatment is voluntary in nature.
• In cases where intervention is necessary for a patient who refuses to agree to voluntary admission, the facility can seek involuntary commitment by petitioning the court.
Mental health is a serious concern, and laws like the Baker Act are intended to provide society with safeguards against identifiable potential threats. And while it remains a subject of controversy in some circles, the law is generally believed to provide a valuable protection for the state of Florida. For people who have reason to believe that a loved one or friend may be a danger to himself or others, this act can sometimes be the only way to get that individual the right kind of assistance.