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Judge denies effort to release "Grace," the Oakland County girl incarcerated over homework

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

An Oakland County Judge under fire forincarcerating a 15-year-old Black girl over a probation violation has denied a motion to release her.

The girl is known by her middle name, Grace, to protect her privacy. Her detention has provoked outrage and national headlines because the probation violation was not doing her online schoolwork.

Grace has been detained at Oakland County’s Children’s Village since May. Last week, her lawyers filed an emergency motion for Judge Mary Ellen Brennan to reconsider her decision, which Brennan agreed to do.

But at a Monday hearing, Brennan laid out the history of Grace’s case in detail. She said Grace has a history of violently assaulting her mother, particularly when she’s denied access to screen time and social media. Brennan also noted that while Grace’s mother is fighting for her daughter’s release, her mother is also the one who reported Grace’s probation violations—including refusing to get out of bed, do her school work, and using a school device to access social media—to a case worker.

Grace was on probation because of a series of incidents that date back to 2016. Both Children’s Protective Services and the police were involved because Grace had a history of repeated attacks on her mother. In 2017, Grace’s mother moved to have her daughter declared “incorrigible,” and petitioned for Grace to be committed for mental health treatment and long-term residential care. At one point, the mother called a mobile crisis team and stated that she wanted Grace removed from the home.

This culminated in a November 2019 incident, in which Grace apparently bit her mother and pulled her hair as she attempted to pull out of the driveway. After a neighbor called police, Grace was charged with domestic violence in juvenile court. She pleaded no contest to that charge, but pleaded guilty to a larceny charge for taking another child’s iPad at school.

Brennan said that an April 21 hearing, she put Grace on “strict probation” at her attorney’s request. That probation included the terms that Grace later violated.

“This is a case of numerous instances of domestic violence,” Brennan said. “It is important to note that it is mother who initiated the violation of probation, mother who testified that she refused to get out of bed.”

Brennan said that Grace is now right where she needs to be—in a residential treatment program at Children’s Village.

“She is a threat of harm under our current circumstances without the mental health treatment she needs, and interventions so she can get a handle on herself,” Brennan said. She told Grace that “There is not a question in my mind, if I were to grant the request to release you home today, I would be making a mistake, and I would be doing you a disservice.”

Toward the end of the hearing, Grace made a tearful statement to the court. Speaking softly and thoughtfully, Grace said she takes “full responsibility” for her past actions. But she noted that she has not had any physical altercations with her mother since the November incident, and felt that the therapy she received before going to Children’s Village was more intensive and helpful.

Grace admitted that she does “do well in structured environments overall, whether it’s camp or detention centers.” But she said the courses at Children’s Village are not challenging her, and actually causing her to fall behind on her regular schoolwork. She also noted that she doesn’t have a history of conflict with other adults, or with her peers.

“My mom wanted to get help anywhere else but the judicial system, and I am not doing well emotionally,” Grace said. “To be honest, I’ve learned more about my mother’s and my relationship in the last two months than I have in my entire life. But I know if I were to go home, I would walk out with a different perspective on life, and I know I would also walk out with a newfound patience."

Brennan told Grace she doesn’t doubt her sincerity. She said the ultimate goal is family reunification, but that Grace and her mother need more time apart to work out their issues.

“We disagree about what it looks like to get to that goal, you and I,” Brennan said. “You think you’re ready, I think you’re not. I think that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, you’re blooming there. But there’s more work to be done.”

Grace’s case has turned into an explosive story since it was first revealed in a ProPublica articlelast week. Critics said it was a prime example of the “school to prison pipeline,” where Black children are disproportionately punished and criminalized for trivial offenses. They said Grace, who has ADHD and an Individualized Education Plan, should never have been penalized for not doing online schoolwork at a time when many students have struggled with that transition. And they condemned Brennan for sending Grace to Children’s Village at a time when officials are trying to empty detention centers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Brennan suggested those criticisms missed the larger context of Grace’s case, and said she was acting out of concern for the girl’s well-being.

“I will not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of public criticism,” Brennan said. “And I am going to uphold my oath.”

Brennan set a September hearing to review Grace’s case, and will consider whether she’s ready to return home at that time.

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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