Judge closes case on Michigan teenager detained for not doing homework

Naomi Mae, 28, of Ypsilanti, joins a recent overnight protest to free Grace, a Black 15-year-old who had been held in a juvenile detention facility for violating her probation after not completing her online schoolwork. (Mandi Wright / Detroit Free Press)

This story was co-published with ProPublica Illinois and Detroit Free Press. ProPublica Illinois is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. 

A Michigan family court judge on Tuesday terminated the probation and closed the case of Grace, the teenager whose detention drew national scrutiny after a ProPublica Illinois story detailed her case last month.

The 15-year-old girl had been sent to a juvenile facility amid the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-May for violating her probation when she didn’t do her online schoolwork. She was on probation for charges last year of assault against her mother and theft of a classmate’s cellphone.

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In a 20-minute court hearing that was livestreamed, Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan adopted a caseworker’s recommendation that Grace be released from probation and that her case be closed. The hearing followed a July 31 ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals that ordered Grace’s release from Children’s Village, the facility in suburban Detroit where she had been held since May 14 — first in secure detention and then in a treatment program.

“Going forward, the court is hopeful that [Grace] has the tools and does make different choices in her home and at school,” Brennan said. She said court involvement is “appropriately terminated.”

“I wish this family well,” she said.

Grace’s mother, in a brief phone call after the hearing, said she and her daughter will “regroup on the goals that we have set for each other” and also “celebrate in some way.”

“To say that we are pleased with the outcome is an understatement,” the mother, Charisse, said in a statement. “While it was an unfortunate and painful process, it has resulted in Grace finally and permanently returning home to her family.”

The hearing began with Grace’s attorneys asking that Brennan recuse herself from the case, citing past “callous conduct” including a mid-July hearing in which the judge “publicly lambasted” Grace and denied a request to release her from Children’s Village. Grace’s attorneys then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which ordered her sent home to her mother with the probation conditions that Brennan had set in April.

Grace’s next hearing was scheduled for Sept. 8, but Brennan set Tuesday’s “accelerated review hearing” after the Court of Appeals decision. Brennan denied Grace’s attorneys’ request to recuse herself from the case. Instead, she defended her prior decision to place Grace at Children’s Village, saying the long-term program was “designed to create a sustained change in behavioral patterns.” She said Grace was making progress in that program and had received therapy and was working with a county animal shelter to prepare dogs for adoption.

“The Court of Appeals order interrupted that treatment plan and damage to that plan has been done that cannot be repaired by this court,” Brennan said. She recounted the family’s prior involvement with the police and child welfare officials. 

But Grace’s new caseworker overseeing her probation, Eddie Herron, said he has spoken with the family regularly since the girl’s release and, in a four-page report to the court, said that she “has been doing very well,” following all rules and taking part in therapy. Brennan said the report indicates that since her release, “mom has picked up the ball and is moving forward in terms of meeting her needs in the home setting.”

Prosecutor Justin Chmielewski said the office did not take a position on Herron’s recommendation, and Grace’s attorneys asked that it be adopted. Charisse told the judge that she would keep therapy appointments for her daughter and, responding to a question from Brennan about whether she had the “situation under control,” she responded “yes.”

Grace “indicated she has learned tremendously from her mistakes in the past,” according to Herron’s report, obtained by ProPublica Illinois. “She and her mother both indicated they have moved forward and have a positive relationship.”

Grace’s case drew national scrutiny over concerns about the juvenile justice system, systemic racism and holding a teenager accountable for schoolwork during the pandemic. Grace, who is Black and has ADHD, struggled with her online schoolwork when Birmingham Public Schools abruptly shifted to remote learning when schools closed because of COVID-19.

After the ProPublica Illinois investigation of her case, Michigan lawmakers and school board members called for the girl’s release, more than 300,000 people signed an online petition and members of Congress asked the U.S. departments of Education and Justice to intervene. There were several protests outside the courthouse where the case was heard.

On Tuesday, Herron told the judge that, since Grace’s release, her mother has worked “diligently” on setting up individual and family therapy, a parent education class, and other services. He said he was “fully confident” that Grace and her mother are committed to moving forward.

“They both realize the importance of making positive decisions,” Herron told the judge. “At this point, I think it is best for the family to move forward and utilize the tools with the support in place in the community.”

ProPublica is using middle names for the teenager and her mother to protect their identities.

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