News 6 investigation: Who is supposed to be caring for children in mental health crisis?

No single agency is responsible for children’s mental health in Florida

FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla.. – When a girl tried to commit suicide by jumping off a Flagler County bridge several months ago, it exposed a giant hole in Florida’s mental health system for children.

The girl was known to law enforcement and had been Baker-Acted several times before she tried to take her own life.

The teenager was rescued from the I-95 overpass by two deputies who were both trained in crisis intervention.

She later thanked them and posed for a picture, posted on Facebook by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies used the hashtag “#FCSO success story” in the post, and while saving the girl’s life was a resounding success for deputies and a textbook example of crisis intervention, the incident was another failure of Florida’s mental health system that is supposed to care for children.

After the girl was rescued, she was Baker-Acted yet again.

Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said she had been hospitalized for her own safety several times, and the cycle continued until the day she tried to take her own life.

Staly blamed Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) for not following up and getting the girl help.

But John Harrell, DCF Northeast Region Communications Director, said it’s not DCF’s responsibility if the child is not under the care of DCF.

“The Department of Children and Families does not receive a specific notification of every individual receiving an involuntary examination, however, follow up-services can be provided in a variety of ways,” Harrell said. “The Baker Act receiving facility makes follow-up care referrals for the individual or caregiver of a minor to obtain additional services after discharge.”

But for any children not in DCF care, any additional services are up to the parents.

So if parents don’t get a child mental health help, who is supposed to?

No one.

After months of investigating, News 6 discovered there is no one governmental organization or agency in Florida responsible for the mental health care of children, even though more children are ending up in mental health crises, especially during the pandemic.

The only net that catches kids in crisis that News 6 could find in Central Florida is in the city of Lake Mary. And it’s entirely volunteer.

News 6 first told you about something called the “Mental Health Intervention Group,” or MHIG, earlier this year. It’s a partnership of volunteers, like youth counselor Jamie Grover, who are notified by police the first time a teen is Baker-Acted or comes into contact with police.

“Typically after a Baker Act, even of a child, they’re just dropped like a rock,” Grover said. “Dropped like a rock.”

Grover is the founder of the Special Needs Advocacy Program in Sanford. Grover said if the Flagler County girl happened to live in Lake Mary, police would have notified him of her Baker Act -- the first time -- and he would have called her.

“Programs like MHIG need to be not only in Lake Mary, they need to be in every city across our nation,” Grover said. “The need is there.”

MHIG pulls together specialists across Seminole County, including pharmacists, doctors, counselors, social workers, pastors, rabbis and even food pantries. When police officers or hospitals refer a patient in crisis, with the patient’s permission, to the MHIG partners, the partners offer their specific services or resources to the patient to fill the patient’s need -- all for free.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.