By Sarah Karp, bettergov.org
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.