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Crime & Courts

Settlement reached in jail suicide lawsuit

Family of woman had sued over her care while in custody

A report dated March 14, 2005, gave insight into Hassiba Belbachir’s mental state while the Algerian-born asylum seeker was detained at the McHenry County Jail.

The report, attorneys said, proved to be key evidence in the wrongful death lawsuit Belbachir’s family filed against Centegra Health System and one of its social workers.

Earlier this month, attorneys for the family “obtained a seven-figure settlement for the family of Hassiba Belbachir,” according to a news release from People’s Law Office. Attorneys would not be more specific on the amount of the settlement.

As a jail social worker employed by Centegra, Vicki Frederick met with Belbachir on March 15, 2005, to document her mental state. The report noted that Belbachir planned to see a jail doctor March 18. She died before seeing him.

On March 17, officers found 27-year-old Belbachir dead in her cell – her jailed-issued socks knotted together and looped around her neck. She used them to suffocate herself.

French-speaking Belbachir, who was Algerian, began her detention at McHenry County Jail eight days earlier while awaiting an immigration hearing.

Belbachir had been living illegally in Chicago but was picked up by immigration authorities while trying to enter England and was extradited back to the United States.

After asking for political asylum, Belbachir ended up in the county jail, which has a contract with the federal government to house such detainees.

Attorneys for Belbachir’s family argued that Frederick and Centegra – which at the time was contracted to provide medical care at the jail – were negligent for not taking Belbachir’s deteriorating mental state more seriously. At the very least, she should have been placed on suicide watch, attorneys Janine Hoft and Jan Susler argued.

In her report, Frederick noted that Belbachir was depressed, sobbed throughout her interview and said, “I’d rather die than live like this,” and “death is dripping slowly, drop by drop.”

When the lawsuit initially was filed in 2006, it named a number of defendants, including county Sheriff Keith Nygren, corrections officers, members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and more. A district court judge previously had terminated all other defendants from the case. But on appeal, judges found that Centegra and Frederick should stand trial.

“Although the federal district court found no basis for the case to go forward, the appellate court decided that the case should proceed to trial. To further avoid prolonged court proceedings, increased financial costs and the emotional tolls on both sides, the parties agreed to a settlement with no admission of fault,” Centegra said Friday in an emailed statement to the Northwest Herald.

Attorneys for Centegra and Frederick previously argued that Frederick’s report also noted the absence of a suicide plan and that Belbachir was a low risk for suicide. Therefore, a watch was not entirely medically appropriate.

Appellate court judges rejected that claim.

“She was an obvious suicide risk who should have been hospitalized or at least placed on suicide watch. ... These were simple and obvious precautions,” the appellate court ruling read.

Belbachir’s attorneys noted that it’s important to recognize her death in the context of immigration detention, a jail population Susler called “vulnerable,” especially when they first arrive – much like Belbachir.

“It was a tragic and unnecessary event that we all hope sends a large and loud scream to the people who are responsible for these policies, both on a national level and local level,” Susler said.

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