BOCA RATON, Fla. – Fifty years ago the Florida legislature passed a form of voluntary and involuntary commitment called the Baker Act, intended to provide help to those with mental illness and protect the public.
While it was written with good intentions, there are concerns about potential abuses of the Baker Act.
For the past five years, drug and alcohol attorney Mark Astor has focused his practice on getting people into treatment for substance abuse and mental illness through a variety of means including, sometimes, utilizing the Baker Act.
“It’s a very useful tool when somebody’s in need of ... an emergency response,” Astor said.
The purpose of the act was to give law enforcement and qualified professionals, such as an emergency room doctor, the power to initiate an emergency stabilization period of up to 72 hours without having to go to the courthouse but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Astor said he’s seen an unsettling trend.
“We’ve had a huge uptick in people suffering from anxiety and depression perhaps they’ve had a relapse of some type,” he said.
This means more people may reach out to a clinician, go to an emergency room, or even call police for help.
“And what’s happened is perhaps those people didn’t meet criteria to be held for 72 hours are being held and they’re being held longer than that,” he said.
For medical privacy reasons, patient records are confidential, which Astor said can actually compound abuses of the Baker Act.
“So when somebody goes to a baker act facility who knows they’re even there may be just the facility and the family and the person who’s been taken but the judges don’t know about it, nobody with authority to have them released knows about it, no one’s even watching to see if that 72-hour clock has started to tick,” he said.
Astor says in cases where family members are concerned about how their loved one is being treated under the Baker Act, time is of the essence.
“You’ve got to understand you’re battling the state here and you need a judge to intervene to make sure the state isn’t abusing the process,” he said.
If you are in crisis, mental health experts agree you should not hesitate to call 211, the Suicide Prevention Hotline, or get yourself to an emergency room for potential stabilization under the Baker Act.