Oakland Co. girl jailed for not doing homework released from probation

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Pontiac — An Oakland County judge released a 15-year-old girl from probation Tuesday, ending a case that drew national attention and criticism after the court ordered the teen incarcerated for not doing her homework.

During a half-hour court hearing broadcast on Zoom Tuesday, Oakland Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan adopted a caseworker's recommendation that the case be terminated and that the girl, dubbed "Grace" to protect her identity, continue getting treatment at home.

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.

Brennan said a Michigan Court of Appeals July 31 decision ordering the girl to be released from Children's Village, a juvenile detention facility, effectively tied the lower court's hands. 

Attorneys Jonathan Biernat and Saima Khalil

"This court’s goal to place her (in Children's Village) was to address delinquent behavior and improve life at home for her and her mother," the judge said, adding that the teen seemed to be benefiting from the treatment she received in the facility.

"The Court of Appeals order interrupted that treatment plan, and damage to that plan cannot be repaired by this court," Brennan said. "This court cannot increase the level of care if it thought that was appropriate, and this court cannot issue consequences for (bad) conduct."

Grace was on probation for domestic violence and larceny in a building, the judge said. There were multiple instances of the girl assaulting her mother, Brennan said.

In May, Brennan ordered the girl to Children's Village after she failed to finish class assignments from Groves High School in Beverly Hills, following the school's switch to remote learning during the COVID-19 emergency.

The decision sparked a national outcry, with six members of Congress calling on Attorney General William Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to intervene in the case. Former Secretary of State and two-time Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also criticized Brennan's order.

On July 20, Grace's attorneys Jonathan Biernat and Saima Khalil filed a motion for early release, but Brennan denied it, saying the girl was still a threat to her mother, and that she should continue being treated in the detention facility.

The appellate court reversed Brennan's ruling.

At the start of Tuesday's hearing, Khalil filed a motion asking Brennan to recuse herself from the case.

"This court has been prejudicial and has engaged in callous conduct in this case," Khalil said. "You have deprived my client access to mental health treatment that was available through her school ... and this court publicly lambasted the child during a court hearing."

Brennan denied the motion, adding: "You could have filed an emergency motion if you thought this was important, but you’re raising it for the first time on the record at the beginning of this hearing? That's not an appropriate way to bring this matter before the court."

The judge then agreed to adopt the four-page report by Oakland Juvenile Probation caseworker Eddie Herron, who said during the hearing he thought the girl and her mother were ready to begin working to repair their relationship.

"Mom has worked diligently with the resources I've provided her," Herron said. "I'm fully confident they'll use those tools. They both realize the importance of making positive decisions.

"I tried to appeal to them to enhance their relationship, so we don't have to be involved moving forward," Herron said.

Before Brennan terminated the girl's probation, she asked Assistant Oakland County Prosecutor Justin Chmielewski whether he agreed with Herron's recommendation. He said the office would not take a position on the matter.

Brennan then asked Biernat whether he agreed with Herron's report.

“We agree that probation should be terminated and the file should be closed," Biernat said.


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN