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Oakland Co. girl jailed for not doing homework gets released

Pontiac — A 15-year-old Oakland County girl whose monthslong detainment drew national condemnation because it was punishment for missed homework amid the pandemic was released Friday evening to the custody of her mother.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the girl's release earlier Friday from Children’s Village, a juvenile detention facility in Pontiac, following outrage, marches and public pressure from former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

Attorneys representing Grace, John Biernat and Siam Khalil talk to reporters about the release of Grace this afternoon from detention at Children's Village on Friday,  July 31, 2020, in Pontiac.

The girl's lawyers, Jonathan Biernat and Saima Khalil, said the teen was picked up by her mother around 5 p.m. after the Court of Appeals ordered her release from Children’s Village, a juvenile detention facility.

The girl will stay with her mother "pending appeal or further order of this court," the three-judge appellate panel ordered. Mother and daughter quietly slipped past more than a half-dozen reporters and photographers camped out at the facility's entrance for more than an hour.

“They just want to go home. ... She will get to sleep in her own bed tonight for the first time in weeks,” Biernat said.

Biernat said the girl was “obviously overwhelmed and thankful” to be going home.

“We didn’t expect this to happen until Monday," Khalil said. "The Court of Appeals did the right thing.”

A previous hearing in Oakland County to review the case of a teen, called Grace, who is in detention after failing to complete online coursework. Judge Mary Ellen Brennan said she had violated her probation. Her detention has sparked protests and calls for change.

The girl, who goes by the pseudonym Grace, was placed in the facility for juvenile offenders in May after failing to complete class assignments from Groves High School in Beverly Hills after the school switched to remote learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan of Oakland County Family Court initially ruled the girl was “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” and called her a “threat to (the) community” because she was on probation for assault and theft charges, according to a report by ProPublica.

Grace was on probation on assault and theft charges related to a November assault of her mother, according to court officials.

On July 20, Brennan ruled Grace was a threat to her mother and should complete her course of treatment, denying a motion for early release. Grace's lawyers appealed Brennan's decision to the Court of Appeals in a Monday motion that was supported by the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office. 

Grace's adjustment to online classes during the pandemic was similar to other students and shouldn't constitute a probation violation, Khalil and Biernat argued in their motion. Administrators, kids and parents alike were navigating "unprecedented and uncharted territory."

But instead of assessing the full context of Grace's situation or attempting to address it through less extreme measures, "the 15-year-old high school sophomore was taken away from the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles," Khalil and Biernat wrote. 

"The lower court's callous approach is evident in this case," they wrote. 

The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the girl's release from Children’s Village, a juvenile detention facility, shown here, in Pontiac on Friday, July 31, 2020.

The appellate panel that ordered Grace's release Friday included judges Deborah Servitto, an appointee of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm; Elizabeth Gleicher, also a Granholm appointee; and Jonathan Tukel, an appointee of former Gov. Rick Snyder.

Grace remains on probation and will be in court for another hearing at a time to be determined, Biernat and Khalil said. Both doubted she would be sent back to Children’s Village.

Both of her lawyers believe there are sufficient support services Grace can take advantage of while remaining at home.

“Mom was looking for resources, “ Khalil said. “She said ‘I need help,’ but she wasn’t handing over her daughter.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, on Friday praised the appellate decision, arguing Grace's case and others during the pandemic have brought to the surface "injustices underlying so many of our systems."

“There is absolutely no doubt that public pressure turned the tide for Grace and her mother," the Bloomfield Township Democrat said. "... We must continue dismantling the systems that allow young, Black girls like Grace to be incarcerated at a disproportionate rate."

U.S. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, also celebrated Grace's release but warned her case was just one "in our broken criminal justice system."

“Let this case shine a light and raise awareness of the work we still need to do,” Dingell wrote on Twitt​​​er.

Criticism of the teen's detention poured in from across the country and locally after her story came to light.

Former Secretary of State Clinton earlier this month retweeted an article about the girl's detention and wrote: "Let her go."

Attorneys representing Grace, John Biernat and Siam Khalil talk to reporters about the release of Grace this afternoon from detention at Children's Village on Friday,  July 31, 2020, in Pontiac.

On Thursday, six members of Congress called on Attorney General William Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to intervene in Grace's case. The letter to Barr and DeVos was signed by Levin, Dingell, and U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. 

"While Grace has faced many personal challenges in her young life, it was her lack of completion in online classes that the judge cited as the definitive reason for sentencing Grace to juvenile detention," they wrote in the letter. "This is unacceptable.”

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."

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter called on Brennan to inquire on the matter, and protesters marched in large numbers to demand Grace be freed. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com