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People have strong opinions about Tina Hunter, the birth mother of Laquan McDonald, sharing in the $5 million the city paid in an unprecedented settlement deal.

“If anyone should have gotten paid it was the state,” one person told me, pointing out that McDonald was a ward of the Department of Children and Family Services at the time of his death.

But it is a lot more complicated than that.

DCFS is supposed to protect abused and neglected children. But McDonald’s journey through the system shows the agency did a poor job fulfilling that mission.


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Despite the unity family members displayed during a recent press conference, juvenile justice records paint a portrait of a family fractured by drugs and poverty, a family too wounded to provide the care McDonald desperately needed to deal with a variety of mental and emotional issues.

In interviews with clinicians, Tina Hunter described the area where McDonald’s extended family lived as a place where gang activity, drugs and violence are prevalent.

After removing McDonald from his mother at an early age because of a risk for harm, DCFS let him to languish in this unhealthy environment until his death by police last year.

The child welfare agency first took him into temporary custody at age 3 when his sister suffered burns the mother attributed to a radiator.

Two years later, it was alleged the mother’s boyfriend physically punched the boy, and day care workers reported Hunter “whooped” the boy for 10 minutes after they told her about inappropriate classroom behavior.

McDonald was then placed in non-relative foster care where he was allegedly sexually molested.

In 2007, McDonald’s great-grandmother, Goldie Hunter, was named his guardian.

Living in her home at that time were McDonald’s maternal grandmother, an unemployed mother of five, who had a criminal history for possession of a controlled substance; an unemployed uncle with a diagnosed mental illness; and another uncle, also unemployed, and the single father of one, according to reports in McDonald’s court files.

Poverty, the gang/drug culture, unemployment and a tangle of social ills, including teenage pregnancy, (Hunter gave birth to McDonald at 15), contribute to the conditions that often result in a child being taken into protective custody.

But how do you justify taking a child out of an abusive situation and putting that child into an environment that has the potential to be equally injurious?

McDonald was candid with social workers about what life was like at his great-grandmother’s house.

He said he joined the gang “New Breeds,” and started selling crack cocaine at age 11.

He also said his family and friends were members of the Vice Lords gang.

In 2012, a probation officer wrote: “Laquan is beyond the control of his legal guardian, Goldie Hunter, and is in need of ‘inpatient drug treatment.’ ”

Unfortunately, he did not get the treatment.

His great-grandmother died a year later, and a team of clinical specialists determined McDonald’s needs could be met in “relative foster care.”

Frankly, with respect to McDonald, DCFS was as neglectful as the parents the agency is charged with monitoring.

I can’t begrudge Tina Hunter the $5 million settlement.

Money won’t erase the regrets she must have about the life and death of her son.

But hopefully — in the spirit of the season — this mother will find a way to help other youth survive families and systems that too often harm rather than heal.

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