Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. Geoffrey M. Alprin, Trial Judge)
Before Wagner, Chief Judge,* Terry, and Schwelb, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wagner
Wagner, Chief Judge: This is an appeal from an order of the trial court terminating the commitment of T.R.J. as a neglected child to the Department of Human Services (DHS) after he reached his eighteenth birthday, but prior to his twenty-first birthday. *fn1 The case presents an issue of first impression, i.e., whether the best interest of the child standard applies where the government seeks to terminate the commitment of a neglected child because it concludes that the child cannot make effective use of the services provided in the juvenile system. Appellant, T.R.J., argues that the trial court erred in terminating the commitment without considering whether the termination was in his best interest and necessary to safeguard his welfare. He contends that the court erred in terminating the commitment where his basic needs for food, shelter, education and mental health care remained unmet. He also argues that reversal is required because he was deprived of a full evidentiary hearing on the issue of termination. It is the government's position that the court has the authority to terminate the commitment of a neglected child when the record demonstrates that neither the minor child nor the public will benefit from the child's continued commitment and supervision by the court. We hold that when the Superior Court has acquired jurisdiction of a neglected child and committed that child for care to the public agency responsible for the care of neglected children and is requested to terminate the child's commitment prior to his or her twenty-first birthday, it must first find that commitment is no longer necessary to safeguard the child's welfare and should frame that finding in conformity with the statute in terms of the child's best interest. *fn2 D.C. Code §§ 16-2323 (d) & -2320 (a). *fn3
T.R.J. has now reached his twenty-first birthday, which raises preliminarily the question of mootness. Since the Family Division of the Superior Court retains jurisdiction of a child only until he reaches his twenty-first birthday, T.R.J. may no longer avail himself of the services provided through the juvenile court system. There is an exception to the mootness doctrine which the Supreme Court has confined, absent a class action, essentially to situations where: "'(1) the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there was a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again.'" In re W.L., 603 A.2d 839, 841 (D.C. 1991) (quoting Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149 (1975) (citing Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975)). This court has not adhered strictly to Weinstein's formulation of the mootness rule. See W.L., 603 A.2d at 841; Lynch v. United States, 557 A.2d 580, 582 (D.C. 1989); United States v. Edwards, 430 A.2d 1321, 1324 n.2 (D.C. 1981) (en banc), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1022 (1982). Instead, we have held that " the quasi-class action nature of a case, while a factor to be considered in a mootness challenge, is not a necessary condition to deciding an issue." W.L., 603 A.2d at 841. We have held the mootness exception applicable where an issue is capable of repetition yet evading review because of the limited time period between the challenged action and the time that it could be fully adjudicated, whether or not it could again affect the same party. See id. (issue not moot because of the limited time a child remains in Receiving Home while awaiting foster home placement); Edwards, 430 A.2d at 1324 n.2 (limited time period for pretrial detention renders confinement under the statute a practice "capable of repetition, yet evading review").
In this case, after offering or providing T.R.J. with many different services without success, the court determined, after he reached his eighteenth birthday, that DHS had reached its limit on what it could "be expected to provide and spend on any one respondent at the expense of countless other children with problems equally compelling." Therefore, the court terminated T.R.J.'s commitment, according to T.R.J., at a critical time when he had no family support and was "homeless, uneducated, and emotionally disturbed." Thus, he contends, he was cast adrift, ill prepared to make the transition into independent adult living by a system which intervened in his life to assure that he had the proper care for his physical, mental, and emotional health. It is quite likely that other young people who flounder in the juvenile neglect system may face the same prospects as they near the age for termination of the court's jurisdiction and that the obligation of the government for their continued care cannot be fully litigated before they become age ineligible. For this reason, we conclude that the mootness exception applies and supports the efficacy of our review of the issue in this case. We turn them to consideration of the factual context in which the questions arise.
Appellant, T.R.J., and his two siblings were adjudicated neglected on January 21, 1988 under the provisions of D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(B) based on a stipulation signed by their mother. *fn4 The neglect petition alleged that T.R.J. had left his mother's care and was residing with homeless people at the Capital City Inn and that his mother, who was mildly mentally retarded, was unable to discharge her responsibilities to him. T.R.J.'s mother signed a stipulation stating that she had been diagnosed as learning disabled and by reason thereof, she was dependent upon her great aunt, D.M., with whom she resided. The mother stipulated that because of her own limitations, she was unable to provide proper parental care or control for her children and that she could not avail herself of community services because D.M. refuses to allow intervention in her home. According to the stipulation:
[T.R.J.] has been diagnosed as an emotionally handicapped adolescent. [T.R.J.] was often out of the house, wandering the streets late at night. Eventually, he got into trouble for allegedly breaking and entering a vending machine.
T.R.J.'s father was deceased.
On December 8, 1988, the trial court entered a Dispositional order committing T.R.J. to the care and custody of DHS for two years. T.R.J. was fifteen years old at that time. Thereafter, the court entered orders extending the commitment annually pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-2322, including one entered on December 20, 1991, which extended the commitment through March 1, 1993. *fn5 However, prior to the expiration of the last such order, the Corporation Counsel made an oral motion for termination of T.R.J.'s commitment at an emergency neglect review on March 12, 1992. The trial court granted the motion over T.R.J.'s objection and denied T.R.J.'s motion for reconsideration.
Various services and placements were ordered for T.R.J. once the court acquired jurisdiction of him, but he did not fare well in most of them. Initially, T.R.J. was placed in shelter care in the third-party custody of Ms. L., who was residing with her family in a shelter. The preDisposition hearing report of the social worker indicates that although this was T.R.J.'s placement of choice, he continued to be truant from school, did not attend family therapy sessions at D.C. General Hospital, and had little contact with his mother or siblings. The social worker remarked that " if placed in individual therapy, it is believed that [T.R.J.] will not participate unless highly motivated and his environment is highly structured." In its Disposition order of April 15, 1988, the court again placed T.R.J. in the home of Ms. L. and ordered that he be enrolled in the For Love of Children Learning Center (FLOC). This placement provided to be inadequate, and on June 6, 1988, the court placed T.R.J. in the custody of DHS and ordered that he be placed at the Arkansas Boys and Girls Group Home and referred for family counseling. The court's order also provided that DHS could transfer T.R.J. to the Community Advocates for Youth Program (CAY) and consider residential placement options. Group home placement was terminated because of T.R.J.'s behavioral problems, and he was sent to another group home from which he absconded. On December 8, 1988 the trial court transferred T.R.J.'s legal custody to DHS and ordered it to seek placement for him in FLOC.
T.R.J. lived at various places during 1989, and the court issued custody orders for his return. On March 1, 1990, the court ordered DHS to refer T.R.J. to the Residential Review Committee, which is responsible for securing residential placements. It appears that T.R.J. delayed the residential placement process by failing to come for required evaluations. The record indicates that T.R.J. was not present for an intermediate review on September 27, 1990, and the court scheduled another hearing for February 12, 1991 and ordered that "DHS shall take no further action prior to further order of this Court." T.R.J. did not attend the next hearing, and DHS recommended that T.R.J.'s commitment be terminated. T.R.J.'s attorney convinced the court to order that he be placed with Ms. A., as a special foster parent once she was approved by DHS. T.R.J. had been placed with Ms. A. temporarily through CAY during the pendency of a delinquency case which was dismissed subsequently.
By the time of the next hearing on April 25, 1991, DHS had not done the required home study for approval of Ms. A. as a special foster parent. Nevertheless, Ms. A. continued to maintain T.R.J. in her home. The court ordered DHS to complete the home study and all requirements for Ms. A.'s approval by May 16, 1991. The court also ordered DHS to refer ...