- Yes, provided the fixed term does not extend beyond the child's eighteenth birthday.
- Yes, but not without involving the court.
- No, except with agreement of the Department.
A juvenile hearing is a two-step process. The Court must determine if a child is delinquent, dependent, neglected, or undisciplined. G.S. 7A-278. If a child is adjudged to fall within any of these conditions, then
"(at) the conclusion of the adjudicatory part of the hearing, the court may proceed to the disposition part of the hearing, or the court may continue the case for disposition after the juvenile probation officer or family counselor or other personnel available to the court has secured such social, medical, psychiatric, psychological or other information as may be needed for the court to develop a disposition related to the needs of the child or in the best interest of the State. The disposition part of the hearing may be informal, and the court may consider written reports or other evidence concerning the needs of the child.
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In all cases, the court order shall be in writing and shall contain appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law. . . ." G.S. 7A-285.
The District Court, having adjudged a child delinquent, has the authority to commit the child to the Department of Human Resources for "a definite or an indefinite term, not to exceed beyond the eighteenth birthday of the child, as the Department or its administrative personnel may find to be in the best interest of the child." G.S. 7A-286(5). The authority of the District Court is not totally discretionary. The General Assembly intended that the Department of Human Resources would be consulted in arriving at the length of the commitment. While the District Court does have the authority to commit for a definite period of time, it would seem the best practice for a child who is to be sent to atraining school is for him to be committed to the Department of Human Resources for an indefinite period of time not to exceed the child's eighteenth birthday or until released by the Department of Human Resources. The Department has not only the authority but the duty to release the child when the needs of the child or the best interest of the State indicate a need for such a release. G.S. 134A-30.
Second, when a child is committed for a definite period of time and the time of the commitment expires, there seems to be no authority for the Department to extend the commitment. Although it is true that the Department has the duty to know when a child is ready for release, G.S. 134A-30, and release of the child when the needs of the child and the best interest of the State so dictate, G.S. 134A-32, this duty does not grant the Department the authority to extend a commitment beyond the time specified in the District Court Order. Such an extension would amount to a deprivation of liberty and would require a Due Process Hearing prior to any deprivation. Cf. State v. Dobbins, 277 N.C. 484, 178 S.E. 2d 449 (1971). Once a judgment against an adult criminal defendant has been imposed, an adult cannot be validly imprisoned beyond the time specified in the judgment. State v. Hoover, 252 N.C. 133, 113 S.E. 2d 281 (1960). There seems to be no reason not to apply this rule to the juvenile courts. The basic requirements of due process must be met in a Juvenile Court Proceeding. In re Burrus, 275 N.C. 517, 169 S.E. 2d 879 (1969) aff'd., 403 U.S. 528, 91 S.Ct. 1976, (1971). Such requirements include notice and a hearing prior to deprivation of any liberty. Id. at 530. There does not seem to be any provision for holding a subsequent hearing by the Department. The committing Judge has "exhausted his immediate authority" and therefore cannot extend the commitment without a new petition being filed. Id. at 536. The time to have the proper commitment imposed is at the conclusion of the disposition phase of the juvenile process. After that time, an extension of the commitment would not seem to be allowed.
The Department of Human Resources has the authority pursuant to G.S. 134A-30, 134A-31, and 134A-32 to release a committed child at any time that the Department determines that the needs of the child and the best interest of the State would be served by such release. Prior to release, the Department shall initiate pre-release planning with the parents of the child and the committing court. If this pre-release planning is begun prior to the expiration of a fixed commitment, the Department should seek an amendment to the order of the committing court prior to release of a child. The Department and the District Court seem to have concurrent authority over the commitment of a child. The final authority to release the child is, however, vested in the Department. The Department would be wise not to ignore an order of the District Court. An amendment to the order would be the proper way to proceed.
A District Court does not have authority to commit a delinquent child to a specific program or institution of the Department of Human Resources. G.S. 7A-286(5) provides for the commitment of a delinquent child to the Department of Human Resources. The Department of Human Resources, after studying the commitment order and accompanying information, shall notify the committing court which institution or other Youth Services program is appropriate according to the needs of the child. The committing court shall deliver the child to the place designated by the Department. G.S. 134A-19. If the Department finds that any child committed to its care is not suitable for any program operated by the Department, the Department shall have the right to make a motion in the cause so that the Court may enter an alternative disposition. G.S. 7A-286(5).
All of these statutes indicate that the Department of Human Resources must control the assignment of delinquent children to the different institutions and programs its administers. The General Assembly intended that the Department of Human Resources should possess the knowledge and expertise needed to determine the placement of a delinquent child. The General Assembly also indicated its intent that the courts defer to this expertise. Therefore, the District Court is without authority to commit a delinquent child to a specific program or institution absent the consent of the Department.
Rufus L. Edmisten Attorney General
Isaac T. Avery, III Assistant Attorney General