After being in juvenile detention for months because of not doing virtual homework, Grace is finally allowed to go home. But are there more ‘Grace’s’ out there?
The incarceration and release of a Black teen over homework sparks national discussion about race and the justice system.
For years it was just ‘Grace’ and her mother, ‘Charisse’ (whose names have been hanged to protect their identities) alone in the world. Charisse unexpectedly had Grace at the age of 44 and Grace’s father wanted nothing to do with either of them. Because of this, the pair had a close bond throughout Grace’s childhood. They did everything together, like golfing, going to the opera, or just hanging at home singing along with Tony Bennett records. Mother and daughter had a nice life going between them.
Then came adolescence.
Troubles at Home
By age 13, Grace had got into trouble for taking an iPad from her middle school without permission. Then she and Charisse began to fight at home. It was mostly over typical teen stuff, like cell phone and computer use. Then Grace began to get physical with Charisse, forcing Charisse to call the police to their home three separate times. Shortly after, Grace was put into a court sponsored program to get counseling and got out early. Then on November 6, 2019, they got into another altercation over Grace going to visit a friend, and an angry Grace bit Charisse’s hand and pulled her hair.
Into the System
After that incident, Grace and her mother were separated for a while to let things cool down. Unfortunately, the police had already reported the incident to the Oakland County court and an assault charge was filed against Grace. A few weeks later, Grace was charged with larceny for stealing another student’s cell phone at school. The other student’s mother wanted charges filed against Grace, saying a little punishment might set her on the right track, but Grace remained free.
During that time and the beginning of quarantine, Grace and Charisse went through both individual and family therapy. Grace generally behaved despite both mother and child being a bit irritable from being shut in together during the pandemic. There were no police visits during that time. Then, on April 21, there was a Zoom juvenile court hearing for Grace on both the assault and larceny charges.
At the meeting, Ashley Bishop, a youth and family caseworker for the court, recommended Grace get anger management and mental health treatment at a residential facility but her lawyer recommended she be put on probation due to the risk of COVID-19 in the facility. It was decided that Grace would be put on intensive probation.
Oakland County Youth Division Judge Mary Ellen Brennan presided over Grace’s hearing and seemed to chide her from time to time. Brennan said she was as worried over Grace’s violence towards her mother as she was about her missing homework.
“…the right thing is for you and your mom to be separated right now,” Brennan told her. (Detroit News, 20 July 2020)
Grace spoke out in her defense during the hearing. “My mom and I do get into a lot of arguments, but with each one I learn something and try to analyze why it happened,” she said. (ProPublica, 14 July 2020)
Grace had been diagnosed with ADHD and was easily distracted, her mother said. She often needed the face-to-face interaction and extra attention of teachers and advisors to help her at school. However, with the advent of COVID-19 and the lack of personal interaction, she found herself having troubles focusing on her online schoolwork. Her new caseworker Rachael Giroux said she was doing well with her schoolwork at first, but a week later, Grace said she was feeling overwhelmed.
By most accounts Grace was a good student, as long as she had those interactions with her teachers, but alone and online she began to struggle. She often stayed up late surfing the internet, then slept in and forgot to turn on her computer to log in for her morning lessons. Giroux noted Grace was having troubles and at first thought it was just a hard period of adjustment. However, she later told the juvenile court authorities that Grace was violating her probation by not doing her homework on time.
“She clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community,” Giroux wrote in her case notes. (ProPublica, 14 July 2020)
Giroux later testified that she didn’t know Grace had learning disabilities.
On May 14, there was a hearing to determine Grace’s fate. Judge Brennan ruled that she was not only in violation of her probation but called her ‘a threat to the community,’ and sent her to Children’s Village Detention Center in Pontiac. This decision came despite an order by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in March to stop any detentions for probation violations in light of the pandemic unless the person posed a safety threat.
Brennan said she sent Grace to detention because she was a threat to her mother, not simply because she didn’t do her homework.
“My role is to make decisions that are in this young ladies best interest, period,’ Brennan said. (Detroit News, 20 July 2020)
So Grace was sent off to detention and Charisse was now alone with a heavy heart, wondering if her detention was doing her any good.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Charisse said. (ProPublica, 14 July 2020)
As news of Grace’s detention spread, there was a mix of reactions, most ranging from shock to disbelief. One of Grace’s attorney’s, Jonothan Biernat, said the Oakland County justice system had simply let her down.
“When a family asks the system for help, they should be given help, not legal troubles, ” Biernat said. (Detroit News, 20 July 2020)
Across the country, Brennan’s decision to incarcerate Grace was viewed as harsh, and juvenile justice advocates said they had never seen a case like it before. Some said the decision went against all health and safety recommendations issued during the pandemic. Ricky Watson Jr., the executive Director for the National Juvenile Justice Network, said he thought Grace had been singled out and that her failure to do homework was not a valid reason to send her to detention during a pandemic.
“Who can even be a good student right now?” Watson said. (ProPublica, 14 July 2020)
Grace’s story soon gained national and international attention. Major news outlets, such as the BBC, NPR, Time Magazine, plus several Detroit area news outlets, were covering the story. Six congressional members and even Hillary Clinton said Grace should go free. Soon after there were protests that included many local and national youth justice advocacy organizations and even Grace’s fellow students from Birmingham Groves High School. Soon a “Free Grace” Movement was born and grew quickly.
For many, the main reason Grace was incarcerated was not because she didn’t do her homework or threatened her mother. It was because she did both of these things while being Black.
Some Hard Stats
There are statistics that seem to back up this assertion.
In Oakland County, where Grace was incarcerated, Black people only make up 15% of the overall population. Yet of the 4,800 juvenile cases between 2016-2020, 42% of them were Black youths.
According to the Sentencing Project, Black youths are four times more likely to be incarcerated as white’s in Michigan.
Since March 16, when Michigan shut down its schools, half of the 24 delinquency cases in Michigan were Black students. Students not turning in their homework during the pandemic is pretty common across the country. In LA 15,000 kids did not turn in homework. In Minneapolis a third of its student’s didn’t turn in homework, and in Chicago a quarter of students did not turn in homework. (All Stats from ProPublica article, 14 July 2020)
Grace’s lawyers appealed the court’s decision and on July 31, the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed to let her go home, undoing Judge Brennan’s sentence which by then had garnered national criticism. This came a week after Brennan had ruled that Grace would stay in the juvenile facility for her own good.
This was good news for both Grace and Charisse, but it calls to question if there are other kids in a similar situation as Grace.
For Jason Smith, the Director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, the answer is not so simple to find because data about juvenile detentions statewide is incomplete.
‘The level of racial disparities when it comes to confinement is difficult to answer without better, publicly accessible, statewide juvenile justice data’ Smith said. (From a series of email questions I sent him).
Smith said Brennan and the Oakland County Court system made a mistake in how they handled Grace’s case. He suggested they should have tried to collaborate with Grace’s school to try and get her up to speed with her homework rather than confining her. He said that putting her in detention was a threat to her physical health during a time of pandemic.
One of Grace’s biggest advocates was the Michigan Liberation Action Fund, who organized several rallies and gathered 380,000 online petitions demanding to free her. Marjon Parham, PR and Communications Director for the organization, said Grace’s case was proof of systemic racism in both Oakland County and the national justice system overall. Parham said a look at national statistics shows the bias clearly and added that there are most likely other kid’s in a similar situation to Grace who don’t know how to get their stories out there.
‘We’re not just seeing something we see, we’re seeing something we know,” Parham said. (from a telephone conversation with her)
On August 11, Judge Brennan released Grace from her probation after a half hour Zoom hearing. Brennan decided to drop the case after a caseworker recommended she continue her treatment at home. Brennan said the July 31 decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals to release Grace from custody had disrupted her treatment program at the juvenile facility to the point where it was not effective anymore, although the treatment’s were helping her.
“The Court of Appeals order interrupted that treatment plan, and damage to that plan cannot be repaired by this court,” Brennan said. (Detroit News, 11 August 2020)
One of Grace’s lawyers, Saima Khalil, had asked that Brennan recuse herself from the August 11 hearing because she was biased against the teen from the start.
“This court has been prejudicial and has engaged in callous conduct in this case…,” Khalil said. (Detroit News, 11 August 2020)
After refusing that motion, Brennan agreed to adopt the recommendation by Juvenile Probation case worker Eddie Herron, who said that Grace and Charisse were ready to mend their relationship.
For Grace and Charisse, their legal ordeal is finally over. They can now stay home and hopefully begin to heal.
But the question still remains: how many other Grace’s are out there?