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Seventh Circuit: Jail Social Worker Ignored Detainee’s Suicide Risk

Seventh Circuit: Jail Social Worker Ignored Detainee’s Suicide Risk

On August 12, 2013, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a jail social worker could be held liable for ignoring a detainee’s obvious risk of committing suicide.

Algerian citizen Hassiba Belbachir, 27, entered the United States as a visitor in November 2004. She overstayed her visa then flew from Chicago to England in February 2005, where she was detained by immigration authorities.

Belbachir was returned to Chicago a week later. On March 9, 2005, she was incarcerated at the McHenry County Jail in Illinois pending a deportation hearing.

A March 9, 2005 intake report did not reveal indications that Belbachir presented a significant suicide risk – in part because a “guard who filled out the intake report changed Belbachir’s answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Are you currently extremely depressed or feeling suicidal?’ to ‘no,’” subsequently claiming he had made a mistake.

Five days later, Belbachir’s mental state had deteriorated significantly.

“Belbachir was suicidal and suffering from a ‘major depressive disorder’ – a warning sign for suicide,” according to the mental health progress notes of Vicki Frederick, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker employed by Centegra Health Systems, the jail’s medical care provider.

Frederick’s progress notes stated that Belbachir was “sobbing throughout” a March 14, 2005 interview and had said, “I’d rather die than live like this.” She also admitted to drinking soap before entering the jail and reported several other alarming suicide warning signs.

Nevertheless, Frederick ignored Belbachir’s obvious risk of suicide, did not alert any other staff of that risk and neither Frederick nor any other jail medical staff had any further contact with Belbachir. Three days later, she strangled herself to death with her socks.

Belbachir’s estate filed a federal lawsuit against numerous county and Centegra officials, alleging that they deprived Belbachir of her life without due process of law by ignoring her risk of suicide. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment as to Frederick, finding that “the risk of suicide was obvious” to her, yet she “decided that Belbachir was not suicidal” and “failed to tell the guards to put her on suicide watch.”

The Court of Appeals initially noted that “Although Centegra’s employees are not public employees, they rightly do not deny that in performing functions that would otherwise be performed by public employees, they were acting under color of state law and therefore could be sued under section 1983.”

Additionally, “Immigration authorities, who monitor the jail’s treatment of its federal prisoners, rated the jail’s suicide-prevention policy ‘deficient’ in 2002,” but “rated it acceptable in both 2003 and ... 2004.” Soon after Belbachir’s suicide, however, “immigration authorities, in what may be an example of hindsight bias, found fault with the jail’s suicide prevention policies,” the appellate court wrote.

“Even if the sheriff was culpable for failing to discover and correct the deficiencies,” the Seventh Circuit found the county could not be held liable because “there is no evidence that correcting them before Belbachir arrived at the jail would have prevented her suicide.” The district court’s order was reversed as to the judgment entered in favor of Frederick. See: Belbachir v. County of McHenry, 726 F.3d 975 (7th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, the Centegra defendants – the only defendants remaining – agreed to settle the case in May 2014 under confidential terms.


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Related legal case

Belbachir v. County of McHenry