This article is copublished with ProPublica Illinois, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
An Oakland County family court judge on Monday denied a motion to release a teenager who has been held at a juvenile facility since mid-May for violating probation after not doing her online schoolwork, saying the girl will benefit from ongoing treatment there.
“I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be,” the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, Mary Ellen Brennan, told the 15-year-old. “You are blooming there, but there is more work to be done.”
The decision came despite an argument from the attorneys of the teenager, Grace*, that the therapy and educational support she receives at the facility are inadequate and a statement by the prosecutor that his office supported her release. Caseworkers for the court and Children’s Village, where she is being held, testified she should be kept at the facility until she completes the monthslong program.
After the hearing, Grace and her mother, Charisse, embraced for more than a minute, the first time they have had physical contact since May 14 because of COVID-19 restrictions. They sobbed audibly through their masks before leaving the courtroom separately.
During the two-hour hearing at the Oakland County court, Brennan also mounted a defense of her initial decision in May to place Grace in detention for the probation violation, devoting about 45 minutes to recounting the troubled relationship between the girl and her mother.
Brennan began by speaking directly to the girl, saying she wanted to ensure the information was on the record: “This morning for you, respectfully, it is going to get worse before it gets better. Because I am about to go over all the crap, all the negative, all the prior attempts at helping. I am going through it all.”
The case, which has drawn national scrutiny, was detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation co-published last week with the Free Press and Bridge Magazine. It has sparked several protests outside the courthouse, and members of Congress, state lawmakers and Birmingham Public Schools board members have called for Grace’s release. The Michigan Supreme Court’s oversight agency has opened a review of the procedures in the cases.
Monday’s hearing came after Grace’s new attorney, Jonathan Biernat, filed a motion Thursday asking the court to review the case and send her home.
Brennan limited discussion to Grace’s “progress and engagement” in the treatment program. She denied Grace’s attorneys’ attempts to discuss her original decision to detain the teenager for the probation violation and would not allow testimony from Grace’s special education teacher.
The prosecutor’s office has until Friday to respond to Biernat’s motion to reconsider the ruling on the probation violation, and Brennan said she will then issue a written opinion.
Grace was a high school sophomore in Birmingham Public Schools when she was charged with assault and theft last year, for incidents in which she bit her mother’s finger and pulled her hair and stole another student’s cellphone.
She was placed on probation in mid-April and, among other requirements, was to complete her schoolwork. Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education services, struggled with the transition to online learning and fell behind when Groves High School stopped in-person learning because of COVID-19. Her probation officer filed a violation against her on May 5, two weeks into the probation.
On May 14, Brennan found Grace guilty of violating probation for “failure to submit any schoolwork and getting up for school.” She ordered her detained, concluding Grace was a “threat to (the) community” based on the prior charges of assault and theft. Grace was placed in secure detention at Children’s Village, in suburban Detroit, for about three weeks and then transferred to a residential treatment program within the facility.
The decision to detain Grace came while the state was operating under an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to eliminate any form of detention or residential placement unless a young person posed a “subs…