CHARDON, Ohio — As Ohio jails released inmates over fears of the coronavirus this spring, Geauga County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy J. Grendell sent two teenage brothers, who hadn't been charged with any crimes, to spend the weekend incarcerated in the Portage County Juvenile Detention Center.
Our exclusive News 5 investigation "Juvenile Injustice" found serious concerns about how Judge Grendell punished the boys.
“This is abhorrent. Even if there is not a pandemic," said Amanda Powell, a longtime Ohio public defender who now works as a consultant for the National Juvenile Defender Center.
"It is my reading of Ohio statutes, that this detention of youth... was not authorized by law," she said.
Sent to detention
The brothers' trouble began in the early evening hours of Friday, May 29.
Their mother, Stacy, took Carson, 15, and Conner, 13, to the Geauga County Sheriff's Department, just as she was ordered to by Judge Grendell.
The judge decided the day before that Carson and Conner should resume visitation with their estranged father, even though the boys had repeatedly told their guardian ad litem they were not ready to see their dad.
At the sheriff's department, Carson and Conner refused to go with their father.
Instead of sending them back home with Stacy, Judge Grendell sent them straight to juvenile detention.
"I couldn’t believe that was happening. I didn’t understand how that was happening," she said.
“I never imagined that I would ever see them in handcuffs," said Stacy. "They’re very calm, well-mannered boys."
She said her sons are the last kids you'd expect to be sent to juvenile detention.
Conner belongs his school's unicycle drill team.
Carson plays golf.
Both receive good grades, belong to a chess club, and volunteer at church.
"I’m trying to figure out what was in the best interest of the kids here to throw them in jail over this," she said.
‘I couldn’t bear it'
"It was extremely difficult to be stripped away from everything I am," said Carson, 15. "I couldn't bear it."
During his weekend at the detention center, Carson said he was locked up alone inside a cell.
He said he was not allowed to speak to anyone at the facility, including his little brother, whom he worried about constantly.
“I can’t even imagine how it was for him," said Carson. "He needed me."
‘Treated like an animal’
Carson was right.
"It ripped me apart not to be able to see him (Carson)," said Conner.
He said reading books and reciting prayers gave him strength to endure his incarceration.
“I felt terrified,” said Conner. “I was treated like an animal. I was put in a cage, basically.”
'Unlawful, immoral, unjust'
"This is not the kind of behavior we want judges to exhibit in cases that are supposed to protect children," said Powell. "I would describe it as unlawful. I would describe it as immoral. And I would describe it as unjust."
Powell has trained thousands of attorneys in 26 states for the National Juvenile Defender Center, which works to ensure children receive "excellent representation" and are treated fairly in court.
"Ohio law provides for detention of youth in very limited circumstances and none of those circumstances were present here," she said. "We know that children who have spent even one night in detention have, are harmed by that, even when that detention is warranted."
The lieutenant's email
A few days later, Geauga County Sheriff's Lt. Gary Gribbons was so concerned by Carson and Conner's detention that he emailed staff regarding when juveniles can be detained.
Lt. Gribbons email said, "The only times we should be taking juveniles into custody or to Portage is when... we have had direct involvement with a juvenile via an unruly or delinquent issue and have PC for a charge and we contact the Judge directly for placement and he orders the juvenile into custody,... we have an arrest warrant or written court order in hand from the judge to take the child into custody."
"In this above mentioned incident we had no charges and no PC for the lock up, simply the judges verbal order, which is not enough," he wrote.
READ THE FULL EMAIL:
'Abuse of the system'
"I really don’t think the way to get visitation going in a productive way in a custody case is to lock the kids up," said John Lawson.
Lawson has practiced juvenile law in Ohio for 44 years, with a "special emphasis in child custody and abuse and neglect and dependency cases."
"My feeling is that, in and of itself, is really an abuse of the system," he said. "These are kids that haven’t committed any crimes."
The weekend the boys spent in juvenile detention is far from Lawson's only concern.
Close to two weeks after their release, Judge Grendell's constable, John Ralph, filed complaints against the brothers, alleging they violated Ohio's Unruly child statute.
"For unruly charges to evolve out of a private custody is extremely unusual," said Lawson. "I’ve never seen a self-initiated filing of unruliness from a court employee before. It’s a rather peculiar situation."
"I've only it seen happen once in my career and that's in this case," he said.
Lawson said the juvenile status offense is supposed to address chronic bad behavior, like truancy, not custody disputes.
"It’s just not what it’s there for," he said. "It’s for kids that are in patterns of misbehavior."
The Office of the Geauga County Prosecuting Attorney agreed the charges were inappropriate.
A week after the complaints against Carson and Conner were filed, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Natalie Harper sent a memo to the sheriff's department stating, "There is no evidence supporting Unruly charges against either of the juveniles."
Harper wrote, "Please be advised that Unruly charges are not a remedy for allegedly failing to comply with a court order issued in a private custody matter."
READ THE FULL MEMO:
Judge Grendell's response
News 5 made several requests for an on-camera interview with Judge Grendell. He declined our requests.
His Court Administrator, Kimberly Laurie, emailed News5 the following statement:
“Not only am I prohibited from commenting on confidential juvenile matters as well as pending court cases, but my job as a Juvenile Court Judge is to protect the best interests of the children who come before the Court. While I cannot comment on the specifics of the case about which you inquire, I can assure you that my decisions are always in the best interest of the children, based on sound law and the actual facts in the case, which can include psychological exams by professionals, prior court rulings in other courts, and other expert testimony.”
“Every instance of the Court’s placement of a juvenile into the detention facility is in accordance with Ohio Law and Ohio Supreme Court approved Rules of Juvenile Procedure.
Since their incarceration, Stacy said her sons haven't been the same.
Conner is quieter. Carson struggles to sleep.
"It was horrifying that I was treated like that," said Conner. "It made me realize that something needs to change in the way of the court."
"I’ve been losing a lot of sleep. I dream about it almost every single night," said Carson. "I read a lot now. That is to try and keep my mind off of it, but I just can’t."
What happened next
The Unruly allegations against Carson and Conner were eventually dismissed without prejudice.
Court records show Judge Grendell recently transferred their custody case back to the Domestic Relations Court.
News 5 has confirmed there is at least one complaint filed with the Ohio Supreme Court against Judge Grendell.
We are unable to confirm whether there are additional complaints. The complaints are private unless there is a finding of wrongdoing.
Stacy's complaint regarding the custody order was recently dismissed by the Eleventh District Court of Appeals.