Settlement of Case Involving Preventable Teen Suicide in Durham County Jail to Lead to Significant Policy Changes

Justice System Reform

DURHAM, N.C. – Two years after 17-year-old Uniece Fennell took her own life in the Durham County Detention Center, a lawsuit brought by her family has resulted in a settlement agreement containing significant policy changes and protections for youth detained and in the custody of the County.  The lawsuit and settlement agreement were filed simultaneously with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina and are currently awaiting the court’s approval.  Links to the complaint and the agreement are below.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice represents Uniece Fennell’s family in the case and negotiated the settlement with Durham County and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced.  It was important to our family that Durham change the way it treats children in its custody. It gives me some peace of mind to know that if this settlement is approved, children detained in the future will be treated more humanely,” said Julia Graves, mother of Uniece Fennell.  “There is nothing that can take away the pain we still feel from losing Niecey.  But there is comfort in knowing that part of her legacy will be making conditions safer for other children.”

The settlement agreement, which was filed with the court includes the following provisions:

  • The removal of all identifiable suicide hazards from the Durham County Detention Facility by the end of 2019 (many hanging hazards, including those identified by a Plaintiff’s expert witness, have already been remedied);
  • A legally-binding and enforceable commitment from the Durham County Commission to end the practice of co-housing juveniles and adults in detention, achievable through the expansion of the Durham County Youth Home or the development of a reasonable alternative;
  • The adoption of a formal policy prioritizing beds in the Durham County Youth Home for Durham County juveniles;
  • Mandatory Crisis Intervention Training for all Durham County detention officers;
  • Staffing of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is able to consult a psychiatrist who is on call 24/7 or available to come to the facility whenever called by the LCSW;
  • Notification to guardians of unemancipated juveniles when they face a life-threatening medical condition, attempt suicide, or make a threat of self-harm; and,
  • A payment of $650,000 to the mother of Uniece Fennell.

“We appreciate all of the hard work on the part of Sheriff Birkhead and all parties involved that went into creating this settlement agreement,” saidIan Mance, criminal justice attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who was part of the team representing the family of Uniece Fennell.  “It is now clear to all parties that it is unacceptable to house children and adults in the same spaces in detention facilities.  We are optimistic that the settlement agreement can help us move forward with policies that make sense and protect children.  It’s important to the family of Uniece Fennell that something positive comes from this tragedy.”

Julia Graves and the estate of Uniece Fennell were represented by Ian Mance, Whitley Carpenter and Ivy Johnson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s criminal justice project.  Hank Ehlies of the Policy Council Concerning Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill was also part of the legal team.

A copy of the complaint can be found at

A copy of the settlement agreement can be found at