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Court OKs suit by family of woman who hanged herself in McHenry jail

HassibBelbachir

Hassiba Belbachir

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Updated: September 15, 2013 6:25AM



A McHenry County Jail social worker who declined to put an openly suicidal inmate on suicide watch has been sharply criticized by the U.S. Court of Appeals for her “inexcusable” role in the young woman’s death.

Depressed Algerian asylum seeker Hassiba Belbachir, 27, hanged herself with her socks in her cell at the Woodstock jail on March 17, 2005, just eight days after she was locked up, and only three days after she tearfully told clinical social worker Vicki Frederick she’d “rather die than live like this.”

Now — seven years after Belbachir’s family sued — the Seventh Circuit has ruled that Frederick and McHenry County’s former health contractor Centegra must finally face a civil trial.

Calling the suicide rate in American jails “frighteningly high,” Chief Judge Richard Posner wrote that Belbachir deserved extra care because she was an immigration detainee who had not been charged with any crime.

Posner added that Frederick’s claim that she failed to act because Belbachir didn’t have a “specific plan” how she would kill herself “would be comical” under less tragic circumstances.

Belbachir “was not a criminal and was no danger to any person in the jail, whether staff member, detainee, or visitor,” Posner wrote.

“She was an obvious suicide risk who should have been hospitalized or at least placed on suicide watch . . . when an adverse consequence is very great, the failure to take a simple, inexpensive, obvious, and indeed prescribed measure to avert it is inexcusable.”

Belbachir first came to the U.S. in 2004 but overstayed her visa. When she flew to England in 2005, the British government sent her back to Chicago, where immigration authorities had her held in Woodstock while her asylum request was processed.

A form filled out by a jail guard on the first day Belbachir was detained was marked to show that Belbachir was suicidal, but later it was changed to say she was not. The jailer said he had made a mistake — a claim Posner said jurors may not believe.

Belbachir’s attorney Janine Hoft welcomed the ruling as “a message that other jails should heed” about treating mentally ill inmates.

And Belbachir’s cousin, Rashid Belbachir, said the case shows that jails are “made for hard-core criminals, not immigration cases.”

Though he was disappointed that the appeals court ruled that McHenry County and its direct employees could not be held liable, he said he hoped that the case would be settled.

“It’s very clear that there was mishandling and neglect in this case,” he said.

Attorneys for Frederick, Centegra and McHenry County did not return calls seeking comment.

Email: kjanssen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @kimjnews



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