Court releases Michigan teen detained over homework amid pandemic

Attorneys Jonathan Biernet, left, and Saima Khalil speak to the media outside of Children's Village in Pontiac on Friday following the release of “Grace,” a teenager detained amid the pandemic for violating her probation by not completing schoolwork. (Photo by Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)

This story was co-published with ProPublica Illinois and Detroit Free Press.

A Michigan teenager who has been detained since mid-May after not doing her online schoolwork was set free on Friday, after the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered her immediate release from a juvenile facility in suburban Detroit.

Grace, a high school sophomore, spent 78 days at the Children’s Village after an Oakland County family court judge found she had violated her probation on earlier charges of assault and theft. Friday’s decision comes a week after that judge denied her lawyer’s request to set her free. The lawyer then asked the appellate court to release her.

Within two hours of the court order, shortly after 5 p.m., Grace left the facility after her mother arrived to get her. She “had her bags ready to go, they jumped in the car and they were gone,” said one of Grace’s attorneys, Saima Khalil. “They were definitely emotional and happy.”

The case involving Grace, who is Black, was detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation this month and has drawn national scrutiny over concerns about the juvenile justice system, systemic racism and holding a teenager accountable for schoolwork during the pandemic.

The three-judge appellate court panel ordered that Grace be “immediately released from detention to the custody of her mother.” She will remain free pending the appeal of Judge Mary Ellen Brennan’s decision in May that found Grace “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school.” Brennan called Grace a “threat to (the) community,” citing the assault and theft charges that led to her probation this spring.

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

“We are elated. We are so happy for Grace to be going home. It is amazing that she is going to be able to sleep at home tonight,” said Grace’s other attorney, Jonathan Biernat. 

A statement released on behalf of Grace and her mother said, “They are both extremely and deeply appreciative of the outpouring of support from around the country, and for Grace’s release; she is anxious to be with her family.”

Grace will remain on probation while her appeal is pending or on “further order” from the Court of Appeals. She will be on home confinement with a GPS tether and will have individual and family counseling. She cannot have access to a phone unless her probation officer allows it and must obey all laws and follow her mother’s rules. She also must attend school and do schoolwork as directed, though school is not currently in session.

The order from the Court of Appeals states that Grace’s attorney has 35 days to submit a brief in support of her appeal on the judge’s decision to revoke her probation and detain her. The prosecutor will then have 21 days to respond, though prosecutors have said they supported Grace’s release.

“The Court of Appeals did the right thing, and they did it as expeditiously as possible. They were very gracious. They didn’t even want it to hit the weekend,” Khalil said. “I am so grateful to them for looking at everything as quickly as they possibly could.”

Grace was a sophomore at Groves High School in Beverly Hills when she was charged with assault and theft for separate incidents last year in which she bit her mother’s finger and pulled her hair and then, weeks later, stole another student’s cellphone.

Brennan placed Grace on probation for those charges on April 21, and, among other requirements, required her to complete her schoolwork. Her probation officer filed a violation against her on May 5. She was found guilty on May 14 and placed in secure detention at Children’s Village for about three weeks before being transferred to a residential treatment program within the facility.

The decision to detain Grace came while 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 a hearing last week denying Grace’s attorneys’ request to release her, Brennan cited a long history of conflict between the teen and her mother detailed in police and child welfare records, most of them from 2017 and 2018. The records describe Grace yelling, pushing, punching and biting her mother, and her mother’s inability to control her, including a request in 2018 for Grace to enter a court diversion program for her “incorrigibility,” the judge said. She also mentioned Grace’s mental health treatment and troubles at school, including her theft of school technology, as well as social services support to help resolve conflicts between the mother and daughter.

Brennan said Grace was doing well and would be best served by getting more mental health treatment at Children’s Village. The program could have taken three more months to complete; Brennan had set Grace’s next hearing for Sept. 8.

Brennan, the Oakland County prosecutor’s office and the Oakland County Circuit Court did not respond to requests for comment Friday. On Wednesday, the prosecutor’s office told the Court of Appeals that it supported the release of Grace from detention.

Brennan’s husband, attorney Edward Lennon, said his wife “is going to respect the Court of Appeals order. She is just going to do her job like she has been doing.”

Congressman Andy Levin, who represents the Oakland County district where Grace lives, said after the Court of Appeals decision was announced that “there is absolutely no doubt that public pressure turned the tide for Grace and her mother.”

“Throughout this pandemic, the injustices underlying so many of our systems have risen to the surface, and the people’s voice has risen just as swiftly to proclaim they must end,” he wrote.

Activists and others, including Grace’s mother, say her case highlights systemic racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. 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. Research also has shown a disproportionate number of youth of color are incarcerated in Michigan.

“I thank the Michigan Court of Appeals for taking action, every journalist who brought attention to this matter, every protester who camped outside of Children’s Village and every one of my colleagues who joined me to demand ‘Free Grace!’ in the weeks past,” Levin said. “We must continue dismantling the systems that allow young, Black girls like Grace to be incarcerated at a disproportionate rate.”

Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib wrote on Twitter: “Coming together to demand justice in both the halls of Congress and the streets of Michigan really can make a difference. We did it for Grace — and we’ll do it again.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell tweeted “Great news!” when it was announced that Grace would be going home.

“But we can’t forget Grace is just one case in our broken criminal justice system,” Dingell wrote. “Let this case shine a light and raise awareness of the work we still need to do.”

ProPublica is using the teenager’s middle name to protect her identity.

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Sat, 08/01/2020 - 9:06am

Although this teenager didn’t belong in the detention center, especially during this pandemic, let’s hope she receives the proper mental health and psychological counseling she clearly needs.

Uncle Otto
Sat, 08/01/2020 - 10:05am

Your story would have been more complete if you had identified the Court of Appeals panel that decided the case you are reporting on. You name the trial judge, her husband, the girl's attorneys, her high school, and three politicians, but not the judges who actually decided the case. Here are some reasons why you should have:

Sat, 08/01/2020 - 10:34am

The appeals courts probation obligation, Grace has acknowledged and agreed to follow, is a stronger course of responsibilities she is to abide. Counseling is a definite plus, but is only as beneficial as Grace is honest, and her mother’s continued strength to be forthright. The decision of Judge Brennan was based on the history of the threatening, abusive behavior, antisocial demeanor, disregard of peers, others property and space, safety, administration, and the gross disrespect of her mother. Not because Grace is black. Nor simply for missed homework. Grace is a minor (15 years old), her mother is responsible for all cost associated with the justice system, for tether monitoring, court costs, judge probation assigned therapy, follow up court appointed lawyer fees, probation charges. All extremely costly. While housed at Children’s Village, focus directed toward Grace’s personal needs for education and responsibility was more beneficial for Grace. And, cost for her parent, contained. In addition, knowing Grace was fed, has safe place to sleep, receiving personal education tutoring, and therapy targeted attention. All who petitioned: signed a paper, sent in “Free Grace” texted, letters, emails, NOW MUST support your actions with money and valuable time. Money to assist with court costs, juvenile and family therapy, court appointed attorney fees, probation fees, weekly substance abuse testing, and ensure transportation. And guarantee Grace is, at least, 15 minutes early for probation, court, community service assignment.

Sat, 08/01/2020 - 2:35pm

Where’s the winner here? No happy ending is likely. Libs can congratulate themselves, but I doubt the courts have seen the last of this kid. I believe in miracles. Grace could use one.

Robert Honeyman
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 9:16am

Thanks for the ray of sunshine.

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:33am

I live in Realville. No mention of a father. Mom's care has failed so far. The state can't really do the parenting. It was never supposed to.

Great example....
Sat, 08/01/2020 - 6:13pm

.........of how you can yell loudly, blame race, and get what you want as long as it's loud enough.

Robert Honeyman
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 9:19am

Wait. She was incarcerated during a time when the Governor had ordered a reduction in prison and jail populations. The proper response of the juvenile court system would have been an order for state-paid counseling.

Oh wait. That only happens in Europe and Canada.


Sun, 08/02/2020 - 8:22am

This IS a story of racial (in)justice, but it is ALSO very much a story about special needs. Left out of this report is that Grace had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) due to ADHD. Guess what? That's a big reason for behavioral issues, and the judge and court were oblivious to this major component (and didn't hear testimony from Grace's teachers!). Had she not been Black, perhaps the ACLU would have become involved under the ADA. Disturbing case all around.

Sun, 08/02/2020 - 4:57pm

This imprisonment only happens to marginalized black kids. Working in a court for years, I can't tell you how many rich white kids got away with.

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 10:05am

It’s called “peer deviancy training”, a phenomenon that impacts group therapy for delinquents, particularly residential facilities for delinquents. The most impactful teachers in these facilities and groups are the kids’ peers, and what delinquent peers teach is not good citizenship nor any other helpful habit. The staff at these facilities have good intentions, but they’re fighting a losing battle. It’s the wrong model for rehabilitating delinquents, particularly non-violent delinquents like this girl.
“Timeout” is forever for kids and the reformation model should play this phenomenon for all it’s worth. Communities need solitary “timeout” places, with maximum 2 day confinement, preferably no longer than 24 hours. The timeout gets the kids' attention: ‘whoa, what’s happening here’, says the kid temporarily isolated from kids, family and smartphone. With the threat of another confinement hanging over their heads, you’ve got their attention, for a while.
The “a while” period is a teachable moment. Because kids are kids, the confinement may have to be repeated from time to time, but very short duration confinement that isolates delinquents for delinquent peers is a much better solution than long term residential facilities.
Residential facilities, like the one noted in this article, should be reserved for violent kids where there is no alternative. They’re essentially prison and we need to develop alternatives.