An Oakland County judge separated a 15-year-old girl from her mother during a pandemic, rather than ensure the teen has the resources she needs to address her challenges at home.
PONTIAC, MI — Judge Mary Ellen Brennan presides over the family court division of Oakland County, a place that can be full of emotion and seemingly impossible decisions. Brennan likely never thought her decision to double down and remand a 15-year-old girl to a juvenile detention center during a pandemic would make headlines in the final year of her term.
“Grace” is the Michigan teenager who has captured national attention for her misfortunate encounter with Judge Brennan. The girl is only known by her middle name to protect her identity.
In May, the Birmingham resident found herself facing circumstances most adults would find difficult: missing her friends, losing the stability of her normal routine, facing fears about the pandemic, and feeling anxiety about keeping up with schoolwork from home.
Ultimately, it was missing schoolwork that prompted Brennan to incarcerate the teen, who was in violation of her probation. And even after public outcry over the case, Judge Brennan denied a motion Monday to release the 15-year-old from the juvenile center, explaining that the teen is benefiting from treatment at the facility.
Grace’s Children’s Village case worker says the teen is doing well in her residential program and that she recommends completion, according to a ProPublica report. Grace told the court that her good behavior should indicate that she is prepared to go home.
“I believe placement in my home with the same, consistent therapy that I was getting beforehand, and love and support that will always be around me, will be a benefit for myself, my mom, my family and my community,” she said.
Grace had previously been placed on probation for assault and theft charges after she bit her mother’s finger, pulled her hair, and stole another student’s cell phone during her sophomore year of high school. Court records indicate that the teen, who has ADHD, was kept home with her mother while on probation, according to a ProPublica Illinois investigation, co-published with Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Free Press.
The terms of Grace’s probation included wearing a GPS tether, regular check-ins with a court caseworker, and no phone. Bridge Magazine also reports that probation also provided counseling and the use of the school laptop for educational purposes only. She was required to complete her schoolwork as a condition of her probation.
Earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order temporarily suspending juvenile detention sentencing for probation violations unless directed by a court order. The March order also discouraged any form of detention or residential placement unless a young person posed a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”
But Judge Brennan chose to incarcerate Grace in May for missing schoolwork in violation of her probation.
“She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance,” Brennan said as she sentenced Grace to a five-month residential program at Oakland County Children’s Village, a juvenile detention center. “I told her she was on thin ice and I told her that I was going to hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation.”
Grace, who is Black, lives in a Detroit suburb that is predominately white. Local leaders and lawmakers expressed disappointment in the teen’s sentencing.
The Power of Girlhood is a Southeastern Michigan nonprofit dedicated to supporting girls in “tapping into their power to create community, discover their value and voice, find career paths, and change the world.” Founder Ber-Henda Williams said “Black girls are more likely to be disciplined more severely.”
According to a report from the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, Black girls are nearly six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white counterparts, and more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other gender or race of students.
“I was shocked and appalled to read the news today,” Michigan House Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden (D) said. “This young lady needs to come home immediately.”
Special needs students can be particularly vulnerable in the absence of face-to-face guidance from teachers, social workers, and others — missing elements in many Michigan kids’ lives during the pandemic.
Grace told Bridge Magazine that she felt unmotivated and overwhelmed when online learning replaced in-person classroom instruction about a month after schools closed. She was easily distracted, a common symptom of ADHD, and had difficulty keeping herself on track without live instruction or much structure, she said.
Grace’s mother told reporters that her daughter’s Individualized Education Plan outlined the school supports she should receive, including periodic check-ins from teachers to make sure she was on task and to clarify the material. She was also supposed to be given extra time to complete assignments and tests.
None of the arranged support was available when remote learning began.
Beyond Michigan, the case sparked national outrage, with news and culture commentators like The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah weighing in on Brennan’s ruling.
“A 15-year-old steals something at school, gets put on probation, and now months later during the pandemic she gets arrested and locked up because she didn’t do her homework online,” Noah questioned in a video posted to YouTube. “It’s crystal clear at this point that this system is set up to punish people, rather than help them.”
Yahoo and MSN News spoke with Penn State criminal justice professor Shaun Gabbidon who called Judge Brennan’s move “really, really absurd.”
There’s no way to know how common or unique Grace’s case is because of strict confidentiality rules of juvenile court. But advocates and lawmakers in Michigan and elsewhere say they can’t recall other cases where juveniles were detained for failing to meet academic requirements, especially after schools closed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Judge Brennan ran unopposed in 2014. She is seeking reelection when her current term expires at the end of this year. Unless the judge changes her mind, Grace’s term at the juvenile center will end just two months prior.
Grace said in court on Monday, despite Brennan’s misgivings, she knows she can control herself.
“That altercation should not be defining who I should be now,” she told Brennan. “I can be respectful, I can be obedient. I feel like that is being completely disregarded, no offense.”