This story was co-published with the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine.
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.