A Chicago lawyer representing a local woman whose newborn died three years ago in Tarrant County Jail recently won a small but important legal victory.
The story starts in 2020. That’s when Fort Worth police officer David Nguyen arrested Chasity Congious, a Black mother with several diagnosed mental health disorders. What followed was a nightmarish hell for Congious and her family. Early that year, Congious’ family called the police because she was experiencing a mental health crisis at her Fort Worth home, and her relatives feared for the mother’s safety and that of her unborn child. Although relatives asked Nguyen to take Congious to John Peter Smith Hospital for involuntary commitment, the officer took the young woman to Tarrant County Jail.
Congious was held for several months without adequate medical and mental health treatments, and Congious’ child, named Z.C.H. in court documents, died shortly after birth inside a jail cell.
“The mom made a request that she be given an opportunity to go to the funeral,” said Congious’ lawyer, Jarrett Adams, last year (“Justice for Chasity,” Jan. 2022). “They denied that request. It was within their discretion to allow the mother to attend the funeral.”
Adams sued the City of Fort Worth for Nguyen’s alleged wrongful arrest of Z.C.H. Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that Nguyen was protected by the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, a vague legal practice that effectively shields peace officers from liability for misconduct in all but the most egregious circumstances. In his recent ruling, Judge O’Connor considered the unsafe and frequently deadly conditions at the county jail that is managed by Sheriff Bill Waybourn. O’Connor said that Adams can proceed with his civil rights lawsuit against the county.
“The overall statistics that Tarrant County Jail has failed three inspections in the past seven years, has the highest inmate mortality rate in North Texas, and has a mortality rate 3.5 times higher than Dallas County Jail should put a reasonable policymaker on notice about potential condition of confinement issues at the jail,” O’Connor wrote. “Based on the court’s own analysis, and bolstered by the findings of the other courts in this district, the court finds that the plaintiff has successfully articulated” that the jail’s unsafe conditions can be the subject of a lawsuit against the county that manages the jail, Tarrant County.
Adams said approval to move forward with a suit for damages based on the unsafe condition of the jail was what his national firm was hoping for.
“If it wasn’t for the conditions of the jail, that baby would be alive,” Adams continued. “We believe the court got it right in allowing us to move forward.”
The jail has not replied to a request for comment.
Adams said he has legal standing to sue the county for millions if not tens of millions in damages, and those funds could be used to help with the mental rehabilitation of Congious, who still to this day lacks the mental capacity to understand her child is dead. Congious’ family, Adams said, is emotionally and financially battered from providing for Congious’ needs, and the young woman requires part-time if not full-time professional help that her relatives cannot afford.
Adams said he takes near-daily calls from Congious’ mother, who is understandably stressed from the burdens of caretaking.
Congious “needs almost daily care and medication to deal with her mental illness,” Adams said. “We can get prescriptions, but who is making sure she takes them? She needs supervision. Her mom has been trying to do all of this while taking care of [Congious’] siblings.”
That dire situation is why Adams is publicly calling for the county to mediate a settlement agreement that could allow Tarrant County officials to forgo a costly court trial.
“It can be gut-wrenching to see how long these cases can take,” Adams said. “Even this first step has taken more than one year. I’m praying that the county grants the green light to mediate the case. This family is not trying to become the next billionaire. They are trying to make [Congious] whole again.”
On Tuesday, Tarrant County’s five-member commissioners court discussed the possibility of mediating a settlement in a private session that lasted late into the afternoon. The commissioners did not disclose their decision by the time we went to press, and Adams said he was assured by county officials that he would be updated on the matter soon.
Adams hopes locals will call on their leaders to consider a settlement because that is the desire of Congious’ family.
County leaders recently took steps to prevent the types of disasters faced by Congious and other members of the Tarrant County Jail population. In March, the commissioners court voted unanimously to expand the list of nonviolent crimes that make a culprit eligible for the new Mental Health Jail Diversion Center, which is managed by MHMR (My Health My Resources) on the Near Southside.
In a public statement, county leaders said, “During the book-in process, a conference between MHMR, the originating law enforcement agency, and the Tarrant County Jail supervisor will determine if the charges can be dropped and the individual diverted to the center.”
Such actions could have saved the life of Z.C.H. The mere fact that the commissioners court is considering a mediated settlement is a positive sign, Adams said.
Without a settlement, “this case will proceed with discovery and depositions,” he said. “We are trying to avoid that. We believe we can win at trial, but I don’t want to drag this family through that. For the sake of this family finding peace, I don’t care about a big judgment. You can’t sit in someone’s living room and watch them cry and not deeply care for that family. To see Congious smile like a 14-year-old kid and ask for her baby? That hurts. Her child would be 2 today.”