TAMPA — Dan Huffy said his 11-year-old daughter was joking when she texted her friends earlier this year: “I’m done with life and what it’s giving me,” she wrote.
The message was a dramatic take on the popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” about a teenager who commits suicide. That evening, sheriff’s deputies took away the honor student in a patrol car, and for the next five days, Huffy said, his daughter was locked in a crisis stabilization center, forced to sleep in a swivel chair and undergo hours of questioning from a psychologist.
“They wouldn’t even let her mother speak to her,” Huffy said, adding that his daughter is now wary of hospitals. “I know it sounds exaggerated and unbelievable, but these cases are real.”
The girl's experience was one of nearly 200,000 involuntary mental health examinations conducted annually under a unique state law known as the Baker Act. School officials in Parkland, Fla., sought to use the same law for Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old accused of killing 17 students and employees there last month, records show. But, more than a year before the massacre, a mental-health counselor told them Cruz didn't need to be detained.
The Baker Act allows law enforcement, school counselors and medical personnel to petition for someone to be institutionalized for 72 hours who is perceived as a danger to themselves or others — without their permission or, in the case of children, without their parents’ consent.
While on the books since 1971, the law has been thrust into the middle of the national gun debate after a gunman killed 17 high school students and staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz, who is facing the death penalty for 34 counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder, had said he wanted to buy a gun and had written racist messages, according to state records.
The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights advocates have said the shooting was a result of law enforcement’s inadequate use of the Baker Act, rather than Cruz’s access to high-powered firearms.
“Sending messages, telling other students that he was going to murder them and he was going to kill him, I would think certainly would qualify under a Florida state statute for you to have Baker Acted him,” NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch said to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel during a CNN forum on gun violence last month.
In 2013, a Broward County sheriff responded to Cruz’s Parkland home after his mother, Lynda, reported she had been thrown against the wall after taking away his Xbox. Mental-health clinicians said Cruz did not need to be held under the Baker Act, according to sheriff office records.
Three years later, a school resource officer reported Cruz had ingested gasoline in a suicide attempt and was cutting himself.
According to the Associated Press, records in Cruz’s criminal case show that the officer and two school counselors had decided at that time that Cruz should be involuntarily committed.
It’s not clear from records why mental-health counselors advised against detaining Cruz, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and depression, had said he wanted to buy a gun and written racist messages, and was on medication and seeing a therapist, according to state records.
Neither the counselor nor his previous employer, Henderson Behavioral Health, returned phone calls seeking comment.
According to data compiled by the University of South Florida, there were 194,354 Baker Act examinations in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, a 111 percent increase over the past 15 years. About 32,000 of the cases involved children, a quarter of whom were referred through the school system, according to USF’s Baker Act Reporting Center.
In response to Cruz’s rampage, Florida lawmakers this month approved a modest expansion of the Baker Act’s power, allowing law enforcement to take away a person’s firearms if they’re admitted for psychiatric evaluation. But some lawmakers are pressing for a state commission to thoroughly vet how it is being applied.
“I don’t know if there needs to be a whole rewrite, but it needs to be fixed,” said Florida Rep. David Silvers (D), who represents Palm Beach County. “I have a feeling if [the Baker Act] was properly utilized . . . maybe Mr. Cruz would not have been able to buy a gun and murder 17 people.”
Throughout Florida, there are deep divisions about whether the Baker Act saves lives or whether it represents the state’s Band-Aid approach to a mental-health system, which has endured repeated budget cuts over the past decade.
“The Baker Act doesn’t work in every circumstance,” said Charlotte Melton, vice president of the Orlando-based Mental Health Association of Central Florida. “When you try to Baker Act someone too early, and they don’t qualify, or discharge them without a treatment plan, people end up frustrated.”
People referred for treatment under the Baker Act are taken to one of 127 approved facilities across the state. The largest intake center, Gracepoint in Tampa, processes more than 1,000 Baker Act patients each month.
Resembling a sprawling office park, Gracepoint includes 60 short-term beds for adults and 28 for children scattered across several buildings.
In the adult wing, patients huddle on reclining chairs as they wait up to 24 hours to see a therapist. After that initial evaluation, about 40 percent of patients are released because it has been determined they do not pose a threat to themselves or others. Those believed to be a threat are admitted, a designation that allows Gracepoint to begin administering psychiatric care, including medication, to patients.
Last week, one patient in the adult wing had been admitted because he said he believed he was Tupac Shakur and wanted to kill God. Another had texted her girlfriend a photograph of a noose hanging from the ceiling and made references to killing herself.
On an outdoor patio, a therapist was leading a group of patients in breathing exercises. Inside, another therapist was leading patients in mind-bending word games.
“Sometimes patients are so much in their head, thinking so much, that they don’t have time to think about positive things,” said Camilo Rosario, 29, a Gracepoint behavioral health technician, noting that keeping a patient both mentally and physically active is a crucial part of the stabilization process. “This gives them a warm-up to think a little bit more.”
Nearby, the children’s wing was housing patients ranging from 5 to 17 years old.
One of the 17-year-old patients was admitted after he cut his wrist following a fight with his mother. A 6-year-old patient was there because he had placed a belt around his neck during an extended outburst.
Derek McCarron, the director of Gracepoint’s Children’s Services, said clinic should be viewed as an “an emergency room for mental health.”
“We just get them started on their treatment and give them a really good after-plan, and that is really where long-term help is going to begin,” McCarron said.
If parents and caregivers are unable or unwilling to follow up on treatment plans, it’s unlikely that a patient will see marked improvement in their mental health, McCarron said.
Florida lawmakers have repeatedly slashed funding for mental-health programs, which advocates say created gaps in treatment options available after crisis care.
When adjusted for inflation and population growth, Florida this fiscal year will spend about $254 million less on mental-health services than it did during the 2000-2001 fiscal year, according to an analysis by the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, an advocacy group. There are now less than a half-dozen publicly funded centers providing intermediate housing and transitional care for individuals released from crisis centers, according to advocates.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, secretary of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said he has seen individuals who have been Baker Acted as many as 15 times.
“When they are released, they are just given a card (with follow-up information) and they just throw away the card . . . and then are back again,” he said. “And it just gets worse and worse until it finally blows.
The Florida Department of Children and Families noted the state will spend more than $1 billion on substance abuse and mental-health services this year. But David Frady, a spokesman for the agency, said the state has shifted away from transitional facilities in favor of “multidisciplinary” and individualized recovery plans based on feedback from doctors, therapists, social workers and guardians.
“The team completes a variety of assessments to identify the resident’s treatment needs and preferences and develops an individualized recovery plan that outlines specific goals, objectives and services needed to overcome discharge barriers and return to the community,” Frady said.
There are success stories. Barbara Conover, 49, credits the Baker Act with saving her life.
After Conover and her husband lost their jobs in the spring of 2016, she was overcome by depression, anxiety and alcohol addiction.
In August of that year, her teenage son found her passed out on the floor after she ingested all her antidepressant medication, about 270 pills.
Over the next year, Conover was in and out of Tampa-area behavior health units.
Because she was uninsured, she would check herself into crisis stabilization units just to receive free medication. But after Conover’s two-week stay at Gracepoint in June 2017, she was homeless and sleeping in her car. Scared and alone, Conover again attempted suicide.
“I, just in my car, vomited (for two days), and on Monday, I knew I had to find a place live,” Conover said. “So I went to Metropolitan Ministries and they were like, ‘You need to be Baker Acted.’ ”
After that three-week stay, Conover said clinic staff worked with her to provide better after-treatment services, including an apartment.
“If more people knew this was out there to help,” Conover said, “there would be fewer people to go off the deep end.”
Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that nearly 200,000 Floridians are involuntarily committed to mental health facilities annually. It’s been updated to note that there are nearly 200,000 involuntarily mental health examinations annually.