Michigan Supreme Court reviewing case of incarcerated teen

Protesters at the #FreeGrace rally and car caravan on Thursday in Pontiac. (Junfu Han / Detroit Free Press)

July 30 update: Prosecutors support releasing girl detained for not doing schoolwork

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

The Michigan Supreme Court said Thursday it is reviewing the circumstances of a case involving a 15-year-old girl who has been in detention since mid-May after a judge determined she violated her probation by not doing her online schoolwork during the pandemic.

That news came the same day attorneys for the teenager filed a motion in court seeking an emergency review and reconsideration of her case and more than 200 people formed a car caravan to protest on her behalf outside the Oakland County Courthouse.

In a statement, the state Supreme Court’s communications director, John Nevin, said, “The State Court Administrative Office is working with the Oakland Circuit Court to examine the processes in this case.”

The case, which has drawn national scrutiny, was detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation co-published Tuesday with the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine.


The girl, Grace*, was a high school sophomore in Birmingham Public Schools when she was charged with assault and theft last year. She was placed on probation in mid-April and, among other requirements, was to complete her schoolwork. Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education services, struggled with the transition to online learning and fell behind.

Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge of the Family Division, found Grace had violated probation by not completing her schoolwork and ordered her to detention. She concluded Grace was a “threat to (the) community” based on the prior charges of assault and theft.

Grace was detained beginning May 14, when the state was operating under an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to eliminate any form of detention or residential placement unless a young person posed a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”

In the court filing Thursday, one of Grace’s attorneys, Jonathan Biernat, wrote that the decision to detain the teenager was contrary to that order because she was “detained based on incomplete schoolwork, which hardly presents a risk of harm to either the community,” or herself.

“The record is entirely devoid of facts to support the actual threat of harm presented by (Grace),” Biernat wrote in the motion.

The motion states that Grace has had “no issues” during the more than two months she has been at the Children’s Village detention center in suburban Detroit, first in secure detention for three weeks and then in a residential treatment program. She “has been an exemplary participant and has completed any and all tasks assigned to her in the time allowed.”

In a statement, the Oakland County court’s Family Division pushed back on criticism of Brennan, saying judges base their decisions on an “extensive review” of information, including public and non-public documents. The court said Grace’s assault and theft charges were “two of many factors” leading to her placement at Children’s Village.

“By definition, any public report is incomplete, out of context, and unfair to all concerned,” according to the statement. “Family court judges have one criterion that must be followed — to make decisions that are in the best interest of the child and the family. This decision is not influenced by race, by income, by ethnicity, or any other variable.”

The ProPublica Illinois investigation did not rely solely on the publicly available court records, and it reported a history of conflict between the mother and daughter, including the mother calling police to the residence on several occasions. There has been no police contact with the family since the November incidents, records show.

The violation of probation involved only incomplete schoolwork and failure to get up for school, and both the mother and daughter have pleaded with the judge to allow them to be together at home. The judge, in announcing her decision in June to keep Grace at Children’s Village, said she thought the teenager was best served by getting treatment and other services that would set her and her mother on a better path forward.

“If this child was such a substantial risk to herself, to others or to the community, that would have been placed on the record and made part of the court file,” Biernat said in response to the court statement.

“The suggestion that (Grace) is so dangerous she needs to be detained and separated from her mother for … months is not supported by the evidence available. If there is additional information that has not been disclosed, I look forward to reviewing that documentation,” Biernat added.

A group representing family law attorneys came to Brennan’s defense. They said the judge, who has been on the bench for 12 years, is a “compassionate, fair, thoughtful, and deliberate judge with an excellent judicial demeanor.”

About 200 people turned out for a car caravan to protest the girl’s detention that traveled from Groves High School, which she attended, to the courthouse. Some made signs — “Black Lives Matter” and “Free Grace” — and taped them on their windows. Grace is African-American.

Amber Abboud, a graduate of Groves High School, said many alumni have shown support for Grace on social media.

“I came out because there is a clear injustice at hand here. I think a lot of these people who attend these schools, we know there is a racial disparity but we don’t talk about it,” she said.

From January 2016 through June 2020, about 4,800 juvenile cases were referred to the Oakland County court. Of those, 42% involved Black youth even though only about 15% of the county’s youth are Black, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis of county data.

Beverly Hills resident Joyce Peralta, who has a daughter with ADHD, spoke about the racial disparities and difficulties for children with learning disabilities.

“This intersects implicit bias because this would not be happening to a white Birmingham girl who had a little bit of a spat with her mom. That’s what teenage girls do,” she said. “And it intersects both the racial disparities, it intersects how we don’t have services for ADHD kids.”

On Thursday afternoon, at a special meeting of the Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education, board members unanimously approved a resolution asking the court to review Grace’s case and apply “restorative justice practices in the best interest of this student.” The district had pledged to be flexible with school requirements during the school shutdown. Work was graded on a credit/no-credit system.

“No harm should come to (Birmingham Public Schools) students as a result of the sudden shift to online learning caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” according to the resolution. State and federal elected officials, the ACLU of Michigan and others also have called for Grace’s release from detention.

School board member Adrienne Young, who works in the State Appellate Defender Office, said board members have received about 300 emails from across the country about the case. She thanked supporters for “standing up for Grace” and apologized to Grace and her family.

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

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Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:28am

Total abuse of power. Yet the people who think Grace "deserved" it are the same who can't bear wearing a mask, call it "tyranny". Hopeless hypocrites!

Fri, 07/17/2020 - 12:05pm

The student, who refused to follow the terms of her probation, by deciding not to complete a reasonable task agreed on to avoid incarceration. By refusing to follow through on her obligation, chose the alternative. The person was charged with breaking and entering, plus theft, illegal activity she chose to engage. The person appears to have a loving parent, who provides a home, food, clothing, and enrolled in school. The parent offered security, love, help and guidance, the 15 year old chose to disregard this care, as well. The young lady chose to disrespect her parent and the courts, causing continued stress on her family.

Free Grace
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 3:18pm

This child is also, just that, a CHILD. Leona, are you saying you or a close family never made a very poor decision as a teenager?? Even children from the most ideal of circumstances mess up sometimes. Not to mention, Grace has ADHD, No child wants to be "bad" and every child deserves to supported by adults who work hard to help them develop into the type of person our society deserves to live with. It is not as simple as, she broke the rules so she should be incaracerated. Just not that simple.

Sat, 07/18/2020 - 12:52am

See, this is why I would love to hear what Judge Brennan has to say. I am sure there are other reasons that the judge locked Grace up that the judge is not privileged to just come out and say.

On the face of it, I support this girl getting out of jail, no kid should be punished for not completing her homework assignments, even if she committed a crime and was on probation. She is 15 for god sakes, dealing with the coronavirus lockdown, the criminal justice system, online school, and ADHD. But also I am not the judge in the case, so I don't know what information is sealed, or what the thought process for the judge is.

I call BS
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 2:22pm

She has special needs and she woke up late one day. Punishment is too harsh, but I say that as a white person who would say the same for my child. Heaven forbid we give a black child the same mercy. Shame on YOU.

Sun, 07/19/2020 - 12:48pm

Exactly Leona,
And they wonder what is wrong with kids today. They aren't getting any better.

Sat, 07/18/2020 - 12:36am

I am going to preface this with the disclaimer I'm not a lawyer and I am going off an assumption that the pardon powers in the state work the same way as pardon powers for the President, please correct me if I am wrong I'd love to know.

I'm confused. Isn't this literally the reason that the Governor (or President) has the right to grant pardons, reprieves, etc. I thought the whole point of those powers (when used correctly) is to act as a check on the judicial branch of government and as a way to stop the courts, judges, and the legal system from reaching outcomes so distasteful to the people, like locking up a child for not doing her schoolwork.

I guess I am confused why these car protestors and official like the Oakland County prosecutor and executive don't just take Judge Brennan out of the equation and start publicly pressuring Whitmer to issue Grace a pardon.

Assault and theft.
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 11:01am

She is in jail because of the ASSAULT and THEFT. The fact that she is refusing to comply with the conditions of her release is evidence that she does not take responsibility for her actions. I think the time in confinement is a great idea and the judge is sending a message to her that her actions have consequences.

Sun, 07/19/2020 - 5:14am

The judge should be fired for sure; perhaps even locked up for a stint too to see how she likes it.

Mon, 07/20/2020 - 8:08am

Yeah I don’t think this would happen to a white girl with ADHD. Our systems fail those who are most vulnerable.