The videotaped shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer was a criminal act, according to prosecutors who have charged the cop with the teen’s murder.
But the death represented something else: The culmination of a series of failings by other taxpayer-funded systems that are supposed to help at-risk youths.
That’s the conclusion of a two-month Better Government Association investigation that examined the educational and social service agencies serving troubled kids like McDonald, who suffered physical and sexual abuse while in foster care, had emotional and other mental issues, and had been involved with drugs and gangs.
“He was ruined at a very young age,” said Bruce Bornstein, a Chicago attorney who long represented McDonald in Juvenile Court proceedings related to foster care.
“There is no way you can come out unscathed . . . the system lacked the appropriate services to deal with the issues.”
Among the BGA’s findings:
- The city schools McDonald attended had some of the lowest academic ratings, and two were later closed because they were so bad.
- The psychiatric hospital he was sent to by child welfare officials was the subject of a scathing report detailing physical and sexual abuse.
- The Chicago Public Schools system placed him in a small private school for children with emotional disturbances, but the district failed to collect any performance measures on the facility and others like it for years.
- The last school McDonald attended is highly rated – but child advocates believe it didn’t have the resources needed to help students with complex behavior issues.
- The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which was responsible for McDonald’s well-being when he was a foster child, was “nonexistent” when it came to ensuring McDonald was adequately placed in schools.
Neither DCFS nor CPS would talk specifically about McDonald, but DCFS officials acknowledge the agency needs to do a better job making sure foster children get in good educational settings.
“Currently, we are working with our internal and external education partners to reduce barriers and improve communication lines between educators and child welfare in order to help our children thrive and be supported in school settings across the state,” said Tiffany Gholson, a licensed social worker who runs DCFS’ Office of Education & Transition Services.
CPS released a statement that only said, “We are committed to serving our students with the greatest needs.”
Ben Wolf, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which has pushed for greater accountability at DCFS, said too many foster children wind up in the worst schools and eventually drop out.
“In general, most schools don’t know what to do with foster children,” Wolf said.
The ACLU and other advocates have pushed DCFS and its subcontractors to monitor and improve the educational outcomes of kids in their care, but DCFS has resisted thus far, Wolf said.
One CPS social worker who reviewed McDonald’s school records said she was appalled at the lack of involvement by DCFS, saying, “It was nonexistent.”
In the early years of McDonald’s life, DCFS botched his case, Bornstein said.
As has been reported, McDonald was sexually and physically abused while in foster care – not in his mother’s care, but living with non-relatives under the supervision of DCFS.
Meanwhile, many foster parents, whether relatives or strangers, live on the South and West sides of the city, Bornstein said. The same neighborhoods have the lowest-performing schools whose resources are stretched.
“The public schools are not equipped to deal with emotional issues that [foster children and other wards of the state] face . . . that is just the reality of it,” Bornstein said.
From kindergarten through fourth grade, McDonald attended Lathrop Elementary School in North Lawndale, on the West Side. CPS records obtained from sources who want to remain anonymous say little about McDonald’s time at Lathrop, but they do mention he had an expulsion hearing in November 2007 though was not kicked out.
In 2009, CPS board members voted to phase out Lathrop and it was officially closed in June 2012. “Year after year, Lathrop has failed to give its students access to the quality education they need to succeed academically,” according to a CPS presentation used to explain why Lathrop was being shuttered.
In 2008, while in fifth grade, McDonald transferred to Austin’s Hay Elementary School. McDonald’s “individual education plan” – a course of action for kids with learning or behavioral issues – focuses on what was characterized as aggressive and defiant behavior, including leaving his classroom without permission, according to the CPS records obtained by the BGA.
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At the time, Hay was rated a “Level 3” school – the lowest academic rating possible, meaning Hay was among the bottom third of CPS schools in terms of test scores and attendance.
In 2011, in seventh grade, after throwing a chair at a teacher, the school called in a state crisis team. McDonald was sent to Hartgrove, a publicly funded inpatient psychiatric hospital on the West Side.
That year DCFS released a report done by experts at the University of Illinois at Chicago that detailed chaotic and grim conditions at Hartgrove. In June 2011, DCFS put a hold on sending children under its care to Hargrove.
Soon after, McDonald was transferred to Montefiore School, a West Side CPS facility for students with severe emotional issues.
During the years that McDonald was there – for part of 2011 and 2012 – the Rev. Robin Hood, a Local School Council member, said that CPS was draining the school of students and resources so that it’d eventually be shut down because it was so costly. The school only had 21 students in September 2011, down from 70 students in 2005-2006.
“It was slowly being killed and it hurt the students,” Hood said.
This year, CPS is officially closing the school, meaning CPS will no longer have any in-house therapeutic day schools, which meld education with counseling for kids with serious emotional problems.
After graduating eighth grade from Montefiore in June 2012, McDonald was placed in UCAN Academy in Humboldt Park.
Run by a nonprofit, UCAN has a good reputation. But while CPS has monitored individual student performance at such private schools, the district acknowledged it doesn’t look at data from such schools in the aggregate, so can’t really say how well they’re performing overall.
This year, CPS is implementing a performance scorecard for privately run, publicly funded therapeutic day schools.
Cherilyn Thomas, vice president of educational services at UCAN, said the individual attention provided to these children is important. They are, needless to say, challenging.
Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Photo courtesy of Rich Hein/Sun-Times.
McDonald’s high school attendance at UCAN was frequently interrupted by stints in the Cook County juvenile detention center, a jail for kids. In fact, his transcript from the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years show that the only grades he got were from the juvenile detention center, which has teachers and classes. (McDonald was apparently at the detention center for drug possession.)
Bornstein said McDonald did fairly well in Nancy B. Jefferson, the detention center school. He received As in English 1 and general music, and Cs in U.S. History.
For the first time, McDonald’s school records mentioned academics. An assessment put him reading at a third-grade level, CPS records show.
In September 2014, for reasons not clear, McDonald enrolled in an alternative school on the South Side called Sullivan House through a broader program for foster children who have dropped out.
CPS gives alternative schools a stipend of about $8,000 per student, plus extra money for students with special needs. UCAN and other private schools get $38,000 to $40,000 per placement from CPS.
UCAN’s Thomas admits sometimes she is bothered when students leave for alternative schools, which often have less support. Private therapeutic day schools have a psychiatrist and other specialized clinicians on staff, while alternative schools often do not. (Sullivan House’s principal, Tom Gattuso, declined to comment.)
But Thomas said that when she saw McDonald’s transfer come through she was hopeful.
“He was charming and would likely find someone to talk to,” she said.
Even though the alternative school might not have the intense support, the program, paid for by DCFS and run through the Alternative Schools Network, provides each participant with a dedicated adult mentor.
McDonald had just made it through his 30-day probation period at Sullivan House when he was killed in October 2014 while holding a knife, shot by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke even though McDonald appeared to be walking away from him and wasn’t posing an imminent threat.
McDonald was one of four participants – 2 percent of the 252 students – in the foster kid-drop out program who died during the 2015 school year, according to the program’s annual report. Ten were incarcerated.
In the 2014-2015 school year, 38 graduated and 127 or about half were still enrolled.
Foster children coming to the program seem more troubled than in the past, said Jack Wuest, veteran activist and executive director of the Alternative Schools Network. Meanwhile, DCFS, dealing with budget cuts, has threatened to do away with funding the program and has over time cut back on other educational services for foster children.
“The resources just aren’t there,” Wuest said. “These kids have experienced unimaginable trauma and our ability to help them is limited.”