Laquan McDonald had rough upbringing, was looking for a 'better chance' in life

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - Laquan McDonald's short life was not an easy one. He was in and out of homes and was a ward of the state three times in just 17 years.

McDonald is becoming a household name, along with Mike Brown and Tamir Rice. But because he passed from home to home growing up, there's very little on record about his past.

It seems like there was nothing consistent in his life, not a home, school, or even a legal guardian. When he was shot last October, he was a ward of the state.

His name is shouted at protests and the demonstrations are about how his life ended, but little has been said about how it started.

No one has seen family photos or yearbook pictures.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service says as a toddler, McDonald was placed in foster care and his mother was cited for neglect.

For the next 15 years, he went from his mom's house to a relative’s house to foster homes.

The spokesperson said when he was 5 years old, his mom's boyfriend abused him and the Chicago Sun-Times reports in two of his foster homes, he was the victim of sexual abuse. From around age six to 16, he lived with his great-grandmother and then stayed in the same house with an uncle after his great-grandmother died in 2014.

As a teenager, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and placed in juvenile detention. He was released in May 2014 and killed 5 months later.

Adults had failed him, and just two months before his murder, he was finally starting to trust adults again.

“It was school that he was finally starting to connect with and possibly a school where he felt comfortable with the adults,” said his principal at the Sullivan House Alternative School, Dr. Thomas Gattuso.

He said Laquan wasn't looking for a "second chance,” but a "better chance."

“He would come to school on a regular basis, one of the first people in school every day, would laugh, would joke and would even give hugs,” said Dr. Gattuso.

At school, he said the 6 foot tall, 180 pound teenager regularly made As and Bs, didn't have any academic or behavioral issues, and was beginning to make friends.

"Nothing (bad) came up with him," Gattuso said. "He never got into any trouble here."

“The saddest part for me as a principal is that when a student walks into a school, it's like a first chapter of their book and we will never get to the last chapter, and that's sad,” Dr. Gattuso added.

"It takes a while to get a life back on track," Gattuso added. "With Laquan, we unfortunately never got to finish his story."

Laquan also had three tattoos, one read "Quan" - another "good son" - and a pair of dice on his hand with the acronym "YOLO" - You Only Live Once.

The family, who received a $5 million settlement from the city months before Van Dyke was charged, even without filing a lawsuit, has declined to speak with the media. Attorney Michael Robbins would not comment on the family's history other than acknowledging it was broken up. He said McDonald grew up without his father involved in his life.

McDonald's mother had been making efforts to regain custody of her son before he was killed and had been granted permission to take a younger sister back into her home, Robbins said.

"The mother was pursuing a petition to reunite the family," he added.

At the news conference announcing the release of the video, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy acknowledged the difficulties in McDonald's life, and his death.

"In this case, we have a tragic ending unfortunately to a tragic life of a young man who was betrayed on a number of different levels," he said. "And typically, these cases end up in the police department's hands. And, in this case, it ended up in his death."

FOX 32 has reached out to the family for a comment, but have not heard back.

The family asked in a statement Tuesday for calm in Chicago and not to resort to violence.

"Don't resort to violence in Laquan's name," the family statement read.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.