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The Life & Death Of 16-Year-Old Maricella Chairez Reveals The Systemic Failure To Help Her

Jody Spiegelhoff

In 2017, Maricella Chairez died by suicide in her cell at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center. Although she was only 16-years-old, her suicide was the culmination of many years of struggling with abuse and mismanaged mental health care.

For the last year, reporter Rory Linnane has been retracing Maricella’s life to see how things could’ve ended up differently. Chairez began experiencing issues with severe mental health problems starting in elementary school, but she had difficulty finding a place in mental health facilities. As she got older, her mental health problems created behavioral problems that landed her in the criminal justice system. 

"We see her repeatedly in life later having these behavioral health challenges that are responded to by police who tend to escalate the situation and then she ends up being criminalized for some of these behaviors," says Linnane. 

Aside from her issues with mental health, Chairez experienced intense sexual abuse. Despite reporting on these incidents to authorities, police failed to act in ways consistent with the law. When Chairez reported being raped in a mental health facility, police dismissed her account despite a medical exam that was consistent with her story. When an 18-year-old admitted to having sex with Chairez when she was just 13-years-old, police didn't charge the man with rape.

Later, it seems that the same man was involved with trafficking Chairez, who was raped and beaten as she was trafficked across state lines. Chairez finally ended up back in jail, after an attempted suicide forced her traffickers to take her to the hospital. 

Back in jail, despite knowing her history of suicidal tendencies and her more recent trauma, Chairez was kept in a cell with something known to be a suicide hazard: a bunk bed, where Chairez was able to hang herself. She died at 16, alone in her cell. 

Although there were a lot of missteps, Linnane says there seems to be little accountability among those responsible for Chairez's safety. 

"I think if we do nothing, then this will happen again. There will be more stories like Maricella's story" says Linnane. "So I truly hope this is something that wakes some people up and take another look at these systems and what we can do to prevent this from happening again."

Linnane's reporting also looks at the different steps the community can take to make sure kids like Maricella Chairez don't endure the same trauma. 

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.