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Editorials

Our View: Boy's death could have been prevented

Attorney George Kills of KRV Legal and Joann Cunningham, mother of missing 5 year old Andrew (AJ) Freund, talks with the media outside Cunningham's home on Dole Ave on Friday, April 19, 2019 in Crystal Lake.
Attorney George Kills of KRV Legal and Joann Cunningham, mother of missing 5 year old Andrew (AJ) Freund, talks with the media outside Cunningham's home on Dole Ave on Friday, April 19, 2019 in Crystal Lake.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services failed 5-year-old Andrew “A.J.” Freund.

The boy could have been saved from the conditions in which he lived and from the parents who prosecutors say killed him. Authorities knew what was going on with the people who lived at 94 Dole Ave. in Crystal Lake, and should have known that it could end in tragedy.

This is not simply about funding or resources. It is a failure to act. A DCFS caseworker investigated not one, but two claims of abuse of neglect by A.J.’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham, 36, and Andrew Freund, 60, in 2018 alone.

Both times they were listed as “unfounded,“ but the investigation seems to have ignored things that police reports show were going on around the home, including suspected drug use and drug-seeking behavior. Both times that authorities encountered A.J. in 2018, he seemed to have odd bruises.

Only after A.J. was reported missing – days after McHenry County prosecutors say Freund and Cunningham beat the boy to death and buried him in a shallow grave – did the state remove his 4-year-old brother from the house.

Cunningham and Freund will have to answer for what happened to their son, and if guilty of murdering him, should never be allowed to walk free.

DCFS must be held accountable as well. The agency has lacked any consistent leadership – with 15 directors in 16 years – and cases such as this one make it a valid question whether it can be effective at all. The newest director, Mark D. Smith, was nominated for the position by Gov. JB Pritzker less than a month ago.

Smith must act decisively to make the changes necessary to prevent such cruelty and neglect from continuing anywhere in Illinois. If DCFS can not do its job, abolish it and create an agency that will.

It's not clear DCFS was aware of all that police officers observed. Crystal Lake police had visited Cunningham’s home on Dole Avenue more than 10 times in five years, and drugs or intoxicated people often were involved. 

Child-welfare case workers twice were involved with the family in 2018. In March, Cunningham was hospitalized after being "found unresponsive in a car," according to a DCFS summary. Although A.J. had been in foster care the first 18 months of his life because he was born with opioids in his system, it was more than a month before investigators met with Cunningham and the children and determined the boys were clean and not mistreated.

The last contact was in December, after Cunningham called police from a Taco Bell to report that her cell phone and prescription medication had been stolen. An officer who went inside the house described it as cluttered, dirty and falling apart. There were clothes, boxes and bags everywhere, a door was covered in grime, the subfloor in the kitchen was exposed and splintered.

“Upstairs in the room where the boys slept, the window was open and the smell of feces was overwhelming,” the report shows.

Although it was December, A.J.’s brother was found wearing only a pull-up diaper, and A.J. had a suspicious bruise on his leg that Cunningham blamed on the family dog. The incident ended in Cunningham’s arrest for driving with a suspended license. A.J. said at the time, "maybe mommy hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn't mean to hurt me," according to a report from DCFS.

But A.J.'s father, Andrew Freund, came to the house and cleaned up, and denied any corporal punishment or drug use in the home. The case was declared "unfounded" for "lack of evidence." 

There are important considerations in child welfare cases. We do not wish for a world where rigid rules lead to unnecessary parent-child separation.

But we also rely on child welfare caseworkers to spot situations where children are in danger. The record shows A.J. and his brother lived in a home where drugs were present and people were unstable, and often in conditions that were unsanitary. 

Even if there was not evidence to merit removing the children from the house, some kind of intervention or regular monitoring might have been enough. That no action was taken is a shame on all of us, and it has touched many people profoundly.

Our state legislators, our governor, and leaders at DCFS and other child-welfare organizations must address this tragic shortcoming of our system.

Let's work together to do a better job protecting at-risk children in Illinois.

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