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Justice for Niecey: Durham agrees to stop housing juveniles, adults together after death of teen

Youth advocates and community members gathered last July outside the Durham County Detention Facility to remember the life of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, a teen who committed suicide while housed there last year. They also called for policy changes to prevent such a situation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Durham County will stop housing juveniles and adults together in detention as part of a settlement agreement with the family of 17-year-old Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, who committed suicide two years ago at the jail there.

North Carolina does not currently keep track of how many children are locked up with adults in its county detention facilities. Durham County already made some changes following Fennell’s death and a subsequent investigation, but her family and juvenile justice advocates demanded better.

“Losing a child is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced,” said Julia Graves, Fennell’s mother. “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. 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 lawsuit Fennell’s family filed and the 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. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice represents the family in the case and negotiated the settlement with Durham County and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

The agreement to end the practice of co-housing juveniles and adults, if approved, would be legally-binding and enforceable and would be achievable through the expansion of the Durham County Youth Home or the development of a reasonable alternative.

Other agreements in the settlement include:

  • 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, have already been remedied);
  • 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 Fennell’s mother

The family was represented by Ian Mance, Whitley Carpenter and Ivy Johnson of the SCSJ’s criminal justice project. Hank Ehlies of the Policy Council for Law Enforcement and the Mentally Ill was also part of the legal team.

“We appreciate all of the hard work on the part of Sheriff [Clarence] Birkhead and all parties involved that went into creating this settlement agreement,” Mance said. “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.”

North Carolina is the only state in the nation that still defines a juvenile as someone under the age of 16. Lawmakers passed language to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 years old, but that measure won’t take effect until Dec. 1. Until then, state law only requires complete sight and sound separation for juveniles under the age of 16.

Counties, however, can make changes before “Raise the Age” takes effect by housing all youth under the age of 18 in separate pods from adults and by choosing to follow the sight and sound separation guidelines.

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