A Michigan judge declined to release a teenager who was placed in juvenile detention after not doing her homework, saying the girl is “blooming there, but there is more work to be done,” The Detroit Free Press reports.
The 15-year-old, who is black and being identified by her middle name, Grace, has been in juvenile detention since mid-May. While Grace had previously been in trouble for fighting with her mother and stealing, she was incarcerated for violating her probation by not completing online coursework when her school switched to remote learning because of COVID-19.
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Grace’s story garnered national attention following a report spearheaded by ProPublica Illinois, the Free Press, and Bridge Magazine, which has led to protests outside the courthouse demanding Grace’s release. Members of Congress have also gotten involved, with Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell telling MSNBC on Monday, “If it was a white young person, I really question whether the judge would have done this. Putting a young person in a confined area in the midst of COVID isn’t the answer.”
During the court hearing Monday, attorneys for Grace argued that she was not receiving proper therapy and educational support at the facility. Grace herself testified that she was falling further behind in her schoolwork, because “the schooling here is beneath my level of education.” She added, “I know you may not seem to think this is a punishment, but in my heart, I feel the aching and the loss as if it were a punishment.”
In a statement, Grace’s attorneys Jonathan Biernat and Saima Khalil said, “While we are deeply disappointed by the judge’s decision yesterday, we will continue to fight for Grace’s release. Grace belongs at home with her mother. Grace is an amazing young woman who is remarkably brave and resilient. She would like to thank everyone who has reached out and shown their support during this trying time.”
A caseworker at the Children’s Village center, where Grace has been incarcerated, said Grace had been well-behaved and completed two stages out of a five-stage program. The caseworker recommended that Grace complete the entire program, which could take three and a half more months.
Judge Mary Ellen Brennan acknowledged Grace’s progress and called the report “as good as it gets,” but then went on to argue that “the worst thing I can do is say you are doing great, now let’s get you home and watch the whole thing blow up.”
During the hearing, Brennan reportedly devoted 45 minutes to telling Grace directly about incidents that had gotten her in trouble in the past. She also took the opportunity to defend her initial decision to send Grace to juvenile detention at a moment when, due to COVID-19, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had ordered the courts to cease any kind of detention or residential placement for young people unless they posed “a substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”
“She was not detained because she didn’t turn her homework in,” Brennan said. “She was detained because I found her to be a threat of harm to her mother based on everything I knew.”
However, none of these incidents, nor any new ones, were mentioned in the violation Grace’s probation officer submitted. Additionally, Grace’s mother has said she mentioned her daughter’s failure to complete her homework out of frustration, and has gone on to say that she believes Grace — who has ADHD — needed more time to adjust to remote learning.
Following the hearing, Biernat told reporters that he plans to appeal the decision. The Michigan Supreme Court’s oversight agency has also launched a review of the case.
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