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Baker Act Used Against 7 Year Old: Delusional Parents or Cops in the Wrong?

At what point in a troubled child's life should a more objective authority than his parents be able to intervene?
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A seven year-old boy throws a temper tantrum in his second grade classroom, stomping on a teacher's foot, battering a school administrator, and tearing the room apart. The class had to be evacuated by school officials to ensure the safety of the other children, and police and the boy's mother were called.

So why are the parents of the boy now shopping around for an attorney? According to them, their child is "sensitive and shy." He has, according to his father Richard Smith, "no mental health problems. He's never hurt himself. He's never hurt anyone else." While mother Barbara Smith admits that her son has thrown such tantrums before, and was once suspended for knocking over a desk, she believes she should have been allowed to "defuse" the situation without police intervention.

However, police in Largo, Florida did intervene and after speaking with the boy and other parties involved, decided to implement the Baker Act and send the boy to a mental health hospital for evaluation. The boy stayed overnight, against the will of his parents, and now the parents are outraged and looking to sue.

The police find themselves in the position of having to defend their decision to use the Baker Act -- which gives them the authority to hospitalize people against their will if they believe there's a likelihood of them injuring themselves or others -- against a seven year-old.

Anyone familiar with my work knows how I feel about the automatic hero status conferred upon those in fields like education and law enforcement. I don't believe that a certificate or a badge makes a hero, any more than I believe that every parent does what's best for their child. So when I read stories like this, I'm not automatically given to one side or the other.

In this case, it's particularly difficult because there's a third party involved that has been rendered near-powerless by policies meant to ensure equal access to education. School districts have little long-term authority over troubled and disruptive students, and what authority they do have is often granted by the parents in the form of an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or other cooperative program. Parents will often resist their child being placed in "special education" due to the stigma attached, which places an extra burden on non-Special Ed teachers and their students.

So while this child's behavior issues might have been earlier and better addressed between the parents and the school, it's understandable to me why the police were called and why they decided to use the Baker Act. Ideal? No. Absolutely necessary? Probably not. Logical, needs-based, and an attempt to be preventative? Yes.

I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon of "they must be terrible parents" because children with behavior problems can happen to the best-intentioned and most loving parents. However, a failure to recognize recurring tantrums -- especially those that involve things like upturning desks and throwing books -- as problematic and unacceptable is dangerous. It's dangerous for the child in question, for his future, and for others in his vicinity.

What we call a temper tantrum in a young child is a fit of rage as they grow older. The lack of impulse and emotional control shown by a screaming, desk spilling, seven year-old is not something he's likely to grow out of on his own.

I know how easy it is for parents to disbelieve, though. Children come to them after their bath, sweetly snuggle next to them on the couch, smile and giggle as they tell their stories, and they think there's just no way. . . no way there's something wrong with this child. They hear reports, as the Smiths did from the hospital psychologist, that their child was "polite and friendly" during an evaluation and they think "See? It was just a moment, just a bad day, something that this or that person provoked." They begin to believe that the incident was blown out of proportion -- they find fault with others -- they begin shopping for an attorney.

What they don't do is comprehend that their child -- the one whose eyes are wide with excitement on Christmas morning, the one who sits on their laps, and loves to ride his bike -- is in need of help. That while he may be sensitive and shy, he may also be unable to control his impulses or his emotions. That while it's unlikely any psychologist would categorize a seven year-old as "mentally ill", most would believe that the child could benefit from therapy and behavior modification, and there should be no stigma, for either parents or child, attached to that.

The worst action that could be taken is action that doesn't address the needs of the child -- such as downplaying the child's behavior, or calling an attorney and attempting to sue the police for trying to get a boy with recurring, violent tantrums professionally evaluated -- when it was obvious that his own parents believed no such evaluation was necessary. At what point in a troubled child's life should a more objective authority than his parents be able to intervene? At what point is it not enough that the mother can "defuse" the situation -- when the situation shouldn't be occurring in the first place? Don't teachers, (particularly those who don't specialize in special education), and their students have a right to teach and learn in a safe, non-threatening environment?

This child needs help. The police, instead of turning their backs and saying "not our problem" did what they could to get him some. Instead of the parents looking to cash in on what they believe was "a total abuse of police power," they might better serve themselves, their child, and society by getting their son the help he needs. Before his childhood tantrums become adult rage.