As activists have sustained calls for a radical transformation of our nation’s criminal justice system over the last several weeks, many among us are reimagining what necessary interventions ought to look like, absent the police. How can we resolve domestic issues, for instance, without having to call 911?
One idea that’s been frequently tossed around is to rely on existing resources: social workers and other agents working on behalf of the state. But a recent ProPublica story published Tuesday morning highlights a problem with that tactic: What happens when these state agents exhibit the same cruelty that police do?
The story concerns 15-year-old Grace and her mother, Charisse, who live in Detroit (both are referred to by their middle names, to protect their privacy. Grace has been incarcerated since May at the Children’s Village detention center for violating the terms of her probation. Her infraction? Not doing her online schoolwork.
There is a lot to be enraged by and heartbroken about in Grace’s story. But this section, which concerns the relationship between Grace and her mother in the lead-up to her incarceration, immediately stood out to me:
When Grace hit her preteen years, however, their relationship became rocky. They argued about Grace keeping her room clean and doing schoolwork and regularly battled over her use of the phone, social media and other technology.
By the time Grace turned 13, the arguments had escalated to the point that Charisse turned to the police for help several times when Grace yelled at or pushed her. She said she didn’t know about other social services to call instead. In one incident, they argued over Grace taking her mother’s iPhone charger; when police arrived, they discovered she had taken an iPad from her middle school without permission. At her mother’s request, Grace entered a court diversion program in 2018 for “incorrigibility” and agreed to participate in counseling and not use electronic devices. She was released from the program early, her mother said.
While there was periodic family conflict, Grace has always had strong friendships and is active in her school and community, her mother said. She has helped run programs at church, played saxophone in the school band and composed music, and regularly participated in service projects.
What’s being described here is girlhood. Rocky, messy, and complicated—but not altogether unusual in the scope of what teenage girls and their families experience as the boundaries of childhood evolve and dissipate. But the stakes of girlhood are much higher for Black girls.
Last November, the tension between Grace and her mother reached a tipping point when Charisse took away Grace’s phone and told her she couldn’t go to a friend’s house. There was a physical confrontation between the two. Grace tried to take her mother’s phone, bit her finger and pulled her hair. She honked the horn of Charisse’s car and cried, “Help me!” Someone ended up calling 911.
An assault charge against Grace was filed. She would get a second charge just a few weeks later after she was caught stealing another student’s cellphone from a locker room. Her mother had taken hers.
As ProPublica reports, things appeared to calm down between Grace and Charisse in the months following the incident. They participated in individual and group therapy, and Grace didn’t get into any more trouble. At worst, Charisse told a court caseworker, Grace had “cabin fever” from quarantining at home. Nonetheless, Grace, via a Zoom court appointment, was given “intensive probation” by a juvenile court judge. This included monitoring via a GPS tether, “regular check-ins with a court caseworker, counseling, no phone and the use of the school laptop for educational purposes only,” writes ProPublica. She was also mandated to do her schoolwork.
As with many kids during the pandemic, Grace had a difficult time adjusting to the online coursework—her challenges were exacerbated by the fact she had no additional support for her learning disability (she has both ADHD and a mood disorder). When her mother told Grace’s caseworker that the teenager was feeling overwhelmed and was oversleeping, therefore falling behind on her coursework, the caseworker appeared to be sympathetic at first, according to case notes.
That changed less than a week later when the caseworker, Rachel Giroux, upon learning from Charisse that Grace had fallen back asleep after checking in with Giroux, the caseworker filed a violation of probation against the teenager. In her case notes, Giroux wrote that Grace “clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community.” (This despite Grace’s teacher telling Giroux that her student was “not out of alignment with most of [her] other students.)
Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, who set the terms of Grace’s probation, was similarly unforgiving in a followup hearing, finding the teenager “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school.” She also called Grace a “threat to (the) community.”
It is hard for me to imagine any other reaction to have to this story other than to feel incredibly sick. And while the coronavirus pandemic is the backdrop for all of this, if we take a step back and consider how our schools and social services mow down Black girls, Grace is far from unique. One report found that Black girls were more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other race or gender of students. Forced to deal with both race and gender bias, they were six times more likely to get out-of-school suspensions than their white peers. The sorts of challenges Grace faced as a result of the pandemic—a lack of focus, uneven sleeping patterns, heightened anxiety—were also not unusual for students, particularly for neurodivergent learners like Grace.
But instead of merely facing a “rough patch,” Grace’s challenges were criminalized. After her initial encounter with the police, all her subsequent issues were viewed through a punitive lens—a “threat” to be reined in by the courts, and by caseworkers who were allegedly there to support her wellbeing.
It’s important to consider Grace and other students like her when considering the scope of our criminal justice problem, in which all of our surrounding “support” systems operate in the same way, and therefore reach the same objectives, as aggressive policing. We can minimize the number of cops patrolling streets, but if biased caseworkers, teachers, judges and administrators are just as capable—and just as ready—to put Black children in cages, we’ve simply changed the agent enacting the harm.
What happened to Grace and her mother isn’t inevitable, but it certainly feels that way—and that feeling is both valid and maddening. Black children certainly deserve better, but there is still so much to be dismantled, so much more to be undone.