- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

CHICAGO (AP) - The death of Laquan McDonald, a black Chicago teenager who was a state ward for most of his life before he we was shot 16 times by a white police officer, has spurred Illinois’ child welfare agency to look differently and with more focus at the cases of troubled youths, the director told The Associated Press.

Department of Children and Family Services Director George Sheldon said in an AP interview this week that since police footage of the 2014 shooting was publicly released last November, agency employees have combed through some 7,000 pages of documents related to the troubled teen’s life in a more personal way, a model for how such cases can be handled in the future.

Sheldon - Florida’s former child welfare agency director who was appointed to the Illinois post last year - acknowledged DCFS, which cares for about 14,500 children, could have done a better job in helping McDonald as a young child. He said the tragic death and the agency’s handling of his case had become a “teachable moment.”

“I can’t defend the department. I think we could clearly have done a better job by Laquan,” Sheldon said. “He should have had a much greater opportunity to improve.”

The changes related to McDonald come as the embattled agency, where there have been eight directors in five years, is being forced to implement reforms as part of a decades-old consent decree. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois sued, alleging “dangerously inadequate” care and services. With help from outside experts, the two sides have been hammering out changes, with the agency’s plan for moving forward due before a judge on Feb. 23.

McDonald’s troubled life has been well documented by local journalists, including accusations that DCFS and the city’s school system may have failed to get enough help for him.

He was in foster care by age 3 when DCFS officials deemed his mother unable to provide adequate supervision. Later, a boyfriend of his mother’s allegedly abused him, according to DCFS. The teenage McDonald lived with his great-grandmother until she died in 2014. That same year he was arrested for possession of marijuana and held in juvenile detention, according to state records.

In October 2014, the black teenager was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke, and the release of a video of the shooting led to the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent, new policing strategies and calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step down. Videotape released after a judge’s order appeared to show McDonald veering away from officers who’d been called on a reported burglary. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. McDonald was carrying a pocket knife, and an autopsy report later said small amounts of a hallucinogenic drug were found in his system.

After the video was released, Sheldon told AP that state workers took two weeks to review McDonald’s case with different parts of the agency collaborating on where things went wrong and what improvements could be made, marking the first time that model had been used in earnest. Sheldon said the streamlined system - to avoid employees working in “silos” on the same issue - would be used for future cases where there were failures.

For McDonald, Sheldon said it was clear there should have been more early intervention, such as therapy for the alleged abuse because of the potential for long-term trauma.

“I don’t think anybody intentionally didn’t do their job,” he said. “But we didn’t understand, in early 2000s, the impact of trauma on kids.”

Jeffrey Neslund, one of the attorneys who helped the McDonald family reach a $5 million settlement with the city over the shooting last year, said the problems with DCFS went further. He said problems continued in foster care arranged by the state.

“That shows there was just a complete lack of supervision,” he said.

There were signs the teenager was trying to get his life back on track, Sheldon said.

Attorneys for the family have said that McDonald voluntarily attended a school for at-risk students and earned A’s and B’s. His mother had also made efforts to regain custody of her son and was granted permission to take a younger sister back home.

Sheldon said in McDonald’s later years it appeared outside agencies were doing a better job, something he’s used to motivate employees.

“Ultimately, we’ve got to instill in staff that each one of these cases is important and you’ve got to treat this job as if it was your child,” he said. “Because once it becomes a job, you probably ought to leave the agency. And it’s a tough job, but you’ve got to maintain your passion for it.”

The agency, which recently announced an extra $20 million in federal funding that previously hadn’t been applied for, has been largely protected from budget-related cutbacks and uncertainty as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats remain deadlocked over a spending plan for the July 1 fiscal year. Even without a budget, most state money is being doled out through state law and various court orders.

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Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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