Illinois child welfare workers 'did nothing' to save 5-year-old AJ Freund despite being in 'extensive contact' with family
The harrowing details of the torture that Crystal Lake boy Andrew "AJ" Freund was subjected to by his parents was revealed on Thursday, with police claiming that it happened despite his extensive contact with child welfare workers. The 5-year-old's death has prompted an intense scrutiny of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which was already under the scanner over the recent deaths of two other children.
Court documents allege that Andrew’s parents killed him by beating him and subjecting him to long, cold showers; an autopsy determined that the child died from blunt force trauma to his head, which had been struck multiple times.
Andrew's body was recovered on Wednesday morning in the rural Hennen Conservation Area of Woodstock, about seven miles northwest of the boy’s home. In a press conference, the police and the FBI confirmed the five-year-old boy was "buried in a shallow grave wrapped in plastic." His parents had reported him missing last week.
Andrew's parents, Andrew Freund Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, were both charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder. Cunningham also faces charges for aggravated battery, aggravated domestic battery, and failure to report a missing child or child death. The father also faces charges for aggravated battery, aggravated domestic battery, concealment of a homicidal death and failure to report a missing child or death.
As per reports, child welfare workers had been called repeatedly to the dilapidated and filthy house, but the parents still managed to torture and kill the boy.
"This agency, there is no direction, no mission and it certainly has not been protecting children," state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, told NewsWest9.
Prosecutors involved in AJ's case read charging documents that alleged the boy was killed three days before his parents reported him missing last Thursday, and the details of the couple's abuse that they meted out to their young child fueled concern about how many other children could face the same kind of danger that "AJ" did in his short life.
"I got the sense from what I read that the cops were essentially begging (DCFS) to take the child," said Feigenholtz, referring to reports that the DCFS in 2018 alone visited the house to investigate allegations of neglect and determined those allegations unfounded. "There were so many calls made, so many signs of trouble and still nothing was done."
Another concern stems from the tough financial situation the state has found itself in for years.
"We have huge budgetary problems and this is a byproduct of not taking care of the real issues," said Rep. Blaine Wilhour, a Beecher City Republican. "These are the core services that are being hollowed out (and) the most vulnerable people are the ones that end up getting hurt."
There were also questions raised as to whether it is too difficult for child welfare workers to remove children from their homes and too easy for parents to have their children returned to them, after two recent cases of child abuse and murder, which further prompted Gov. JB Pritzker to order an independent review of DCFS.
In February, a Decatur woman pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges after her 2-year-old daughter died from starvation and deprivation, although the child was taken from her mother last year during a DCFS child abuse investigation and placed in foster care, only to return in August.
In another case, a 2-year-old Chicago boy's autopsy revealed his bruises and old rib fractures, but records show DCFS never reported the injuries despite making numerous visits.
The research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago shared in a press release: “With the lowest foster care entry rate in the nation, Illinois has a high threshold for child removal.”
Meanwhile, Feigenholtz said lawmakers have to answer the question of whether the threshold for child removal is too high or whether the workers are "not aware of them or are poorly trained." "I think we all have a great deal of questions, but I will tell you this that this has to end," she said. "It has to be fixed."