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Findings didn’t support out-of-home placement of juvenile

A District Court judge’s written findings of fact did not adequately address the statutory factors necessary to support an out-of-home placement of a juvenile adjudicated delinquent, ruled the Court of Appeals.

The juvenile had been in and out of residential treatment programs following an adjudication of delinquency. As part of a negotiated agreement with the state, the juvenile agreed to live with and work for a family friend in Tennessee. When the juvenile returned to Minnesota weeks later, the District Court judge determined his departure from Tennessee was a failed placement and ordered him to the corrections department facility in Red Wing, Minn.

Arguing that the evidence did not support his placement and that the District Court judge’s findings of fact were insufficient, the juvenile appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed the placement determination and remanded the matter, requiring the District Court judge to conduct an expedited review of the case and make adequate written findings.

“Though [the District Court’s] factual findings may be read to address some of the factors [required to make an out-of home placement], and the evidence may very well ultimately support the disposition, the findings lack the completeness required by statute and rule,” wrote Judge G. Barry Anderson.

The seven-page decision is In the matter of the Welfare of N.T.K., Minnesota Lawyer No. CA-1214-00.

“I don’t think that trial court judges have the time to make the findings that are necessary,” said Assistant State Public Defender Renee J. Bergeron, who represented the juvenile. “[It] makes it difficult for us [as well as the Court of Appeals] to review a disposition to determine if it is appropriate. …This a problem we run into again and again.”

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Donna J. Wolfson said, “the decision was not at all unexpected,” adding that the state had conceded that the District Court judge’s written order did not meet the requirements of the rule and the statute. Wolfson noted, however, that the state believes that the disposition of the trial court was correct.

“Because the court had considered a straight reversal,” she said, “we are glad that [it] decided to remand the decision to the juvenile court to look at the facts and have an opportunity to craft an order that meets the statutory requirements.”

Red Wing bound

In July 1998, the juvenile — now 17-years-old — pleaded guilty to first-degree damage to property and disorderly conduct. The District Court adjudicated the juvenile delinquent and ordered him placed at Woodland Hills, a residential treatment facility. In April 1999, the juvenile successfully completed the program, and as part of the required program aftercare, enrolled in Katadin School, an intensive day-treatment program. The juvenile periodically disappeared from the home and failed to report to Katadin on May 3, 1999. The juvenile’s probation officer ordered him detained.

At a May 6, 1999, disposition hearing, the juvenile admitted to violating his probation and committing a new instance of disorderly conduct. On June 3, 1999, the District Court adjudicated the juvenile delinquent on the new charge and ordered his placement at Gateway Group Home.

The group home, however, discharged the juvenile on June 6, 1999, for fighting with another resident. The state then charged him with new counts of disorderly conduct and criminal damage to property, adjudicating him delinquent based on the disorderly conduct charge. Hennepin County probation officers regarded the juvenile as a risk to himself and others, and the court accepted the probation officer’s recommendation that he be detained and receive mental health evaluations. On July 19, 1999, the District Court placed the juvenile at the David Ward Group Home.

The juvenile again failed to comply with the conditions of his probation by absenting his home, failing to comply with random urinalysis, failing to attend court-ordered counseling, and failing to take medication. The state and the juvenile negotiated an agreement whereby he would complete a consequence-based program and then seek work and a high school diploma or GED while living with and working for a family friend in Tennessee. Consistent with the probation officer’s recommendation, the District Court’s order provided for “stayed out of home placement to Commissioner of Corrections at Red Wing or County Home School.”

The juvenile completed the program and arrived in Tennessee on Feb. 21, 2000. Unable to enroll in school because he did not live with his legal guardian, he did not do any meaningful work for the friend. Claiming, among other things, that he missed his mother, the juvenile returned to Minnesota in early March. At the request of his probation officer, he was taken into custody upon his return.

After two March 2000 hearings, the District Court judge determined that the juvenile’s departure from Tennessee was not a probation violation, but did constitute a failed placement. The District Court judge lifted the stay and, based on probation’s recommendation that the juvenile needed a structured consequence program, committed him to the corrections department juvenile facility in Red Wing, Minn. The order provided that once the juvenile successfully completed that program, juvenile court jurisdiction would be dismissed.

The juvenile contested the placement order, arguing that the sanction was disproportionate to his offenses and that the court did not make the statutorily required written findings of fact.

Anderson began by explaining that District Courts are afforded broad discretion in determining appropriate juvenile delinquency dispositions, but that a delinquency disposition is only lawful if necessary to the rehabilitation of the child. A disposition calling for out-of-home placement must be supported by evidence that the placement is the least drastic step necessary to restore law-abiding conduct, continued the judge.

In ordering out-of-home placement, Anderson explained, a District Court is required — by Minnesota Stat. sec. 260B.198, subd. 1(m) and Minn. R. Juv. Pro. 15.05, subd. 2(A) — to make findings of fact that show:

• why public safety is served by the disposition;

• why the best interests of the child are served by the disposition;

• what alternative dispositions were proposed to the court and why such recommendations were not ordered;

• why the child’s present custody is not acceptable; and

• how the correctional placement meets the child’s needs.

Noting that written findings are essential to meaningful appellate review, Anderson observed that findings are required to show that the District Court considered vital standards and to enable the parties to understand the court’s decision. “For these reasons, we have repeatedly emphasized the importance of findings in our many published decisions that hold inadequate juvenile disposition findings constitute reversible error,” wrote the judge.

Anderson observed that here the juvenile argued — and the state conceded — that the District Court judge failed to make sufficient written findings to support the Red Wing placement. “The district court found, in two sentences, that the Tennessee ‘placement failed’ and that the Red Wing commitment was ‘the least restrictive alternative necessary to retu
rn [the juvenile] to law-abiding behavior,’” Anderson noted.

Acknowledging that the findings may be read to address some of the factors, and the evidence may ultimately support the disposition, the court nonetheless determined that the findings lacked the completeness required by statute and rule.

— Michelle Lore

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