Judge: Teen detained after incomplete schoolwork should 'follow through' treatment

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A 15-year-old girl detained in Oakland County after allegedly failing to complete schoolwork, as required under her probation, is a threat to her mother and should complete her course of treatment, the judge said Monday while denying a motion for early release.

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan of Oakland Circuit Court conducted the hearing. ProPublica reported last week that Grace had been jailed.

Grace, a pseudonym for the juvenile, was on probation on assault and theft charges related to a November assault on her mother, Brennan said at the Monday hearing. At the prior court hearing that led to Grace being jailed, Brennan allegedly called her a "threat" to the community, ProPublica reported.

Before making her decision, Brennan allowed the girl to speak.

"I miss my mom," Grace said. "I can control myself. I can be obedient."

Brennan said the decision to keep the girl jailed was for her own good.

"Give yourself a chance to follow through and finish something," Brennan said. "The right thing is for your and your mom to be separated for right now."

Attorneys Jonathan Biernat and Saima Kahlil represented Grace at the hearing.

"When a family asks the system for help, they should be given help," not legal troubles, Biernat said after the hearing. 

Early into the three-hour proceeding, before conducting a lengthy review of Grace's history, Brennan told the girl: "This morning, for you, unfortunately, is going to get worse before it gets better."

During the physical confrontation with her mother, the girl allegedly bit her mother's hand and pulled her hair. Police have been called out three times for confrontations between the two, Brennan said from the bench.

"She was not detained because she didn't turn her homework in," Brennan said. "She was detained because she was a threat to her mother."

The larceny charge comes from an alleged theft of a cellphone from a student at her high school, Birmingham Groves, Brennan said.

"My role is to make decisions that are in this young lady's best interest, period," Brennan said. "I took an oath that I would not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism."

But members of the group Michigan Liberation Action Fund, who protested Monday outside the court building, said the judge's decision was too harsh. 

"She is 15 years old," said Cherisie Evans, a core leader for the activist group. "I don't understand how a 15-year-old with a problem can be locked up. Where is the counseling? Where are the resources?"

The nonprofit Michigan Center for Youth Justice condemned Brennan's decision not to send the girl home. 

“Here is another instance of where a youth on probation was put in a confined setting for a behavior that is not a crime,” said Mary King, the group's executive director in a press release. “We only know about Grace because the mother reached out to a reporter. Because there is no system for reporting such situations on the youth justice system, we have no idea how many other ‘Graces’ there are.” 

A call for comment on Brennan's decision to the Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper wasn't immediately returned Monday afternoon. 

Grace's attorneys also have a motion for reconsideration pending before Brennan that Biernat said they hope she will rule on soon. Cooper has until July 24 to respond to that motion. 

The ProPublica report brought national media attention and local outrage. The response in Michigan has come from many angles: Birmingham's board of education passed a resolution to review the matter, one that "reiterates (Birmingham Public Schools') deep belief that no harm should come to its students as a result of the sudden shift to online learning."

Tylene Henry, Monique Campbell and Raynard Lanier II hold signs in support for the release of "Grace" from juvenile detention outside a hearing for the girl on Monday, July 20, 2020.

More:Protesters march in support of Oakland Co. teen detained over missed schoolwork

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter has called on Brennan to inquire on the matter. Protesters have marched in large numbers to demand Grace be freed. A spokesman for Coulter said he wanted to review the record of Monday's hearing before commenting. 

Brennan's review of the case indicates the girl's mother initiated contact with police, multiple times, after physical confrontations. The two have argued aggressively over the years, often about restrictions over the internet or her phone.

"This family needs help," Brennan said. "What (they) have been doing since 2016 has not worked.

After about an hour, Brennan allowed a 15-minute break to allow the girl's counsel to review documents and reports they received only Monday morning.

Before the break, Brennan argued the program is helping: "I can't see why I would sabotage her by changing that."

After the break came the "better" part Brennan promised. A case worker from Transitions Academy for Girls said Grace is doing well in the program and is in stage two of a five-stage program. Getting all the way through could take a few more months.

Brennan argued it would not be best for Grace to end the program for completing it, and a staffer with Transitions Academy agreed.

The judge consistently referred to Grace's situation as a "treatment program" rather than jail, and said her decision will depend on whether she feels it's in the girl's best interest to be removed from the program without first completing it.

Cherisie Evans of Michigan Liberation Action Fund urges Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan to release 15-year old "Grace" from juvenile detention during a press conference outside Oakland County Circuit Court, Monday, July 20, 2020. The judge was holding a review of the case inside the court.

Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed


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