Mitchell: Laquan McDonald case reveals child-welfare system’s flaws

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Laquan McDonald’s death has forced us to take a hard look at the Chicago Police Department and City Hall.

But the details of McDonald’s struggles, buried in court files at the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Services Departments, show we also need to examine the child-welfare system.

Not long after he came into this world, McDonald was thrown into a system that’s  supposed to rescue children at risk for harm. Yet the 17-year-old ended up dead on a sidewalk from 16 bullets, killed by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

At the time of his death, McDonald was a ward of the state, suffering from complex mental issues.

Going through hundreds of juvenile justice and child protection records shows the court struggled to find a proper placement and treatment for McDonald.


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Born to Tina Hunter, a teenage mother who also was a ward of the state, McDonald and his younger sister were removed from Hunter’s care twice — once at 3 years old and again when he was 5.

At one point, he was briefly placed in foster care, where he said he was “physically abused with extension cords” and “barely fed.”

Documents in court files also indicate that McDonald might have been sexually abused in foster care.

McDonald’s great-grandmother, Goldie Hunter, was given guardianship of him when he was about 7 years old.

“It was a couple of years after he was placed with his great-grandmother when he started getting out of control, being mean to kids, fighting kids a lot,” Hunter told social workers during an interview last year.

The great-grandmother, who lived in a rough neighborhood in North Lawndale, was 72 years old when DCFS made her guardian. So it’s not at all surprising that by the time McDonald was a teenager he was out of control.

In a 2013 interview, McDonald told a probation officer he was smoking approximately 12 “blunts” of marijuana a day and was a “member of a Four Corner Hustler street gang since the age of 11.”

“I have enough rank to get someone stomped out, but I don’t gang bang like that. I stay in the house,” he said.

In 2014, McDonald again became a ward of the state, this time because of his great-grandmother’s death in 2013.

By then, the 17-year-old had wracked up four referrals to the juvenile court and nine drug-related arrests, as well as probation violations, according to reports and documents contained in his juvenile court file.

McDonald already had been detained four times at the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for a total of 103 days.

During each detention, the teen picked up major violations, accused of being disrespectful and disruptive and threatening and assaulting staffers.

His behavior, according to the court file, was related to mental health issues diagnosed as early as age 11. Among them: post-traumatic stress disorder, episodic mood disorder and bipolar disorder.

Though he was prescribed medications to deal with these conditions, he refused to take them, once telling a therapist, “Medicine is for slow people.”

Apparently, there was no attempt on the part of his guardian to make him take his medication.

After a 2014 charge for unlawful possession of cannabis, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office started pushing for McDonald to be sent to the state Department of Corrections.

“I don’t give a f* about going to D.O.C.,” McDonald once screamed during an outburst at an alternative detention program.

But he did care. In fact, McDonald was “concerned that he was following in his father’s path” and was aware that his biological father was incarcerated, an interviewer reported.

While McDonald circled in and out of the Juvenile Detention Center, state and county officials wrestled over a plan for his future.

On May 29, 2014, at a court hearing that would later be challenged by prosecutors as an “illegal” proceeding, Cook County Circuit Judges Marianne Jackson and Maxwell Griffin held a joint hearing on McDonald

Jackson — the judge who oversaw McDonald’s juvenile cases — was hesitant to send McDonald to prison, instead placing him on 30 months’ probation.

Griffin — who oversaw the custody hearing — set a goal of 12 months for McDonald to return to his mother and ordered that he be placed in the meantime in the care of a maternal uncle with “appropriate support, structures and services.”

The placement was puzzling.

For one thing, the uncle was only 24 — seven years older than McDonald. He was unemployed and on the great-grandmother’s Section 8 lease. He also had a criminal history of domestic violence with two different women, according to a Departmnet of Children and Family Services investigative report.

Jackson expressed concerns about McDonald going directly from the Juvenile Detention Center to the uncle’s home and thought McDonald should go to a “residential placement” facility.

Why Tina Hunter wasn’t given outright custody of her son is a mystery. She had completed parenting classes, gone through family counseling and was seeing her son on overnight and weekend visits on a regular basis. For all intents and purposes, she had consistently been involved in his life.

“Our communication is great. Me and Laquan like two peas in a pod,” Hunter told a clinician.

By then, Hunter was aware that she and her son were caught up in the same cycle of abuse and neglect that had caused her so much pain growing up.

Because of her own mother’s substance abuse, Tina Hunter remained a ward of DCFS until she “reached maturity,” according to notes in the child protection file.

The numerous reports prepared by probation officers, therapists, mental health workers, advocates and other child-welfare workers portray a young man who just wanted to be allowed to live with his mother.

Hunter told clinicians he had expressed to her over the years “a feeling that she need to try harder to have him in her care.”

Despite intervention by child welfare, McDonald described his life as being “hell” and said he had no happy memories of his childhood.

The shortcomings in the child-welfare system didn’t kill McDonald.

But they didn’t help keep him out of harm’s way either.

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