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In re P.S.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

November 7, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF: P.S. IN THE MATTER OF: L.T. IN THE MATTER OF: N.J. IN THE MATTER OF: R.J.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 22 August 2017.

         Appeal by respondents from orders entered 16 June 2016 by Judge Louis A. Trosch, Jr., in Mecklenburg County Nos. 16 SPC 4047, 16 SPC 4126, 16 SPC 4081, 16 SPC 4080 District Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Josephine N. Tetteh and Milind Kumar Dongre, for the State.

          Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, by Ariel E. Harris and Fred M. Wood, Jr., for Strategic Behavioral Health.

          Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Jillian C. Katz and Assistant Appellate Defender David W. Andrews, for respondents-appellants.

          DAVIS, Judge.

         P.S. ("Paul"), [1] L.T. ("Luke"), N.J. ("Natalie"), and R.J. ("Robert") (collectively, "Respondents") appeal from the trial court's 16 June 2016 orders concurring in their voluntary readmissions to Strategic Behavioral Center for inpatient mental health treatment. The primary issue in these four consolidated appeals is whether Respondents' readmissions to the facility were rendered unlawful due to the illegality of their initial admissions. In addition, we address various other arguments regarding the minors' readmissions, including (1) whether a trial court is required to conduct an initial jurisdictional inquiry at voluntary admission hearings to ensure the minor's admission authorization form was signed by a legally responsible person; (2) whether an admission authorization form may be based on verbal - rather than written - consent of the minor's parent or guardian; and (3) whether a specific procedure must be followed before a trial court can accept a minor's consent to the recommendation that he be admitted to a 24-hour inpatient facility. After a thorough review of the facts and applicable principles of law, we affirm in part and vacate in part.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Respondents are four minor children who either suffer from mental illness or from substance abuse. At various times during the spring of 2016, they were admitted to a mental health facility in Charlotte operated by Strategic Behavioral Health ("Strategic"). In May 2016, Strategic conducted a self-audit during which it discovered that Respondents and five other minors had been improperly admitted to the facility without having received a hearing within fifteen days of their admissions as required by North Carolina law. After becoming aware of its error, Strategic discharged, reevaluated, and then readmitted Respondents beginning on 30 May 2016.

         I. Luke

         Luke grew up in a home where he was "neglected and abused[, ]" his mother used drugs, and she once "burn[ed] him with a cigarette." He got into "trouble in school" and was "suspended many times for his behavior."

         Luke was thirteen years old when he was first admitted to Strategic on or about 3 April 2016. After approximately two months without judicial review of his admission, he was discharged and readmitted to the facility on 3 June 2016.

         II. Robert

          Robert reported being raped by his uncle when he was 4 or 5 years old. He has a history of suicide attempts and has reported "being born addicted to cocaine." He was suspended from school "for fighting, lying, stealing, and touching females inappropriately." Robert's biological father died when he was young, and he has had no contact with his biological mother. After multiple unsuccessful placements in foster care, Robert's 18-year-old brother adopted him.

         Robert was fourteen years old when he was first admitted to Strategic on or about 28 April 2016. After more than a month without judicial review of his admission, he was discharged and readmitted to the facility on 2 June 2016.

         III. Paul

         Paul displayed aggressive behavior in school, including multiple incidents during which he stabbed other students with pens and pencils. He also had "a history of suicidal ideation behavior such as cutting himself and hitting himself

         Paul was fifteen years old when he was first admitted to an inpatient facility in another city on or about 10 February 2016 and arrived at Strategic sometime in the spring of 2016. He was discharged and readmitted to Strategic on 30 May 2016.

         IV. Natalie

         Natalie has a history of angry outbursts and blackout spells, and her mother was concerned about her tendency to become violent toward other individuals in her home. Natalie was fourteen years old when she was first admitted to Strategic on or about 10 March 2016. After nearly three months without judicial review of her voluntary admission, she was discharged and readmitted to the facility on 31 May 2016.

* * *

         On 14 June 2016, hearings were held in connection with the readmissions of each Respondent before the Honorable Louis A. Trosch, Jr. in Mecklenburg County District Court. The Council for Children's Rights ("CCR") was appointed to represent Respondents at their respective hearings. Strategics attorneys, CCR attorneys, and the applicable clerks of court were all present at the hearings.

         That same morning, CCR filed motions to dismiss in each of the four cases, asserting that Respondents' readmissions to Strategic violated both their procedural due process rights and applicable statutory provisions set out in Chapter 122C of the North Carolina General Statutes. The trial court consolidated the four motions for hearing. At the close of the arguments, the court denied Respondents' motions to dismiss.

         The trial court then held separate hearings regarding the readmission of each Respondent. The court informed each minor that Strategic recommended he or she be readmitted to the facility "for up to 45 more days." The court then asked each of the Respondents whether they consented to the recommendation and informed them that if they disagreed with the recommendation, the court would hold a hearing on the issue.

         Paul, Natalie, and Robert each stated that they disagreed with Strategic's recommendation. The court then proceeded to conduct hearings in which the minors and their respective therapists testified. Following each hearing, the court concurred in the recommendation for readmission of the minor based on the testimony that had been presented.

         Luke, conversely, consented to Strategic's recommendation for readmission. Therefore, the court adopted the recommendation as to him without conducting a full hearing.

         Respondents filed notices of appeal on 24 June 2016. The four appeals ...


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