"Maybe someone hit me with a belt," 5-year-old AJ Freund told an emergency room physician Dec. 18. "Maybe mommy didn't mean to hurt me."
The large bruise the doctor was examining on AJ's right hip that day could have been caused by a football, a belt or the family dog, according to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services records.
Both the doctor and DCFS investigator Carlos Acosta – who also is a McHenry County Board member – were unable to pinpoint how AJ sustained the bruise. Dec. 18 and 19 were Acosta's first and last times meeting AJ's family.
"Am I emotionally distraught over what had happened? Of course, because this is a child that I can picture. This is a child that I can see. Every time an article comes out, I’m back in that interview room. I’m hanging out with AJ back at the police station, playing. Do I question every decision I’ve made now for the last 25 years? Sure.”
Acosta, who has 25 years of experience with DCFS, previously declined to comment on AJ's death. He indicated he and other DCFS workers were advised not to speak about the matter.
After consulting with DCFS' administrators and communications department Friday, however, Acosta was permitted to speak to the Northwest Herald about his personal experience during the Dec. 18 and 19 investigation of possible abuse against AJ. His comments do not reflect the opinions of DCFS as an agency, he said.
Additional details were obtained through Crystal Lake police reports, in which Acosta's name was redacted under an exemption intended to protect the identities of "confidential sources or information provided by the confidential source, or the identity of persons who file complaints with or provide information to law enforcement agencies."
DCFS denied a Freedom of Information Act request for investigation reports, claiming they are not public records. The agency also said there was no documented disciplinary action against Acosta between May 1, 2017, and May 6, 2019.
Dec. 18 was a key date in AJ's life. That day and Dec. 19 were the last time before his death that DCFS investigators were called to AJ's home at 94 Dole Ave. in Crystal Lake while the boy was alive. On those dates, AJ spoke with police, a DCFS investigator and an ER doctor. He also might have had the chance to speak with city building and zoning employees called to inspect the home, but they were denied entrance, police records show.
Dec. 18 was the day AJ's mother, JoAnn Cunningham, was arrested in connection with driving on a suspended license. It was the same day Daniel Nowicki, the man whom Cunningham described as her fiancé and a father figure to her children, was taken to the McHenry County Jail, where he remained for five months.
"I don't believe at all that he should be in jail. I don't want him to miss the birth of his next child," Cunningham wrote in a Jan. 1 email to the Northwest Herald. "He is a good man, spouse, friend and father. ... His arrest will have a long-term impact on both the former patient, Daniel Nowicki, and his/our family."
As the day unfolded, AJ first made contact with Crystal Lake police, who took photos of the home, fed him chicken nuggets and then took both him and his younger brother into protective custody after seeing the home’s ramshackle conditions and noticing a large bruise on AJ’s hip.
AJ then spoke with Acosta, who could not determine where the bruise came from. The boys were released back into the custody of their father, Andrew Freund Sr., and taken to a doctor's office for further examination.
“To me, he said that his dog had jumped up on the couch and hit him," Acosta said, noting that on its hind legs, the family pet, Lucy, was taller than him.
The story about Lucy is the same one AJ and Cunningham previously told police and would go on to tell the ER doctor who examined the boy. It wasn't until the doctor later questioned AJ, without his mother in the room, that the 5-year-old mentioned possibly being hit with a belt.
DCFS made its final home visit the next day, when the family's living room and dining room reportedly were cluttered with clothes and toys.
“[AJ] was a happy kid. When I talked to him at the police station, he was interested in playing," Acosta said. "I hung out with him until Mom was able to process her bond. I didn’t sense any fear from him. When the observation was made at the house, he was playing and watching TV.”
Both parents denied physically abusing the children, and with approval from Acosta's supervisor, the DCFS case was closed, ruling suspicions of abuse and neglect unfounded.
When DCFS workers such as Acosta perform a home visit, they check to see whether the people caring for a child meet "minimum parenting standards," Acosta said. "Minimum parenting standards" essentially comes down to whether the children are clothed, fed and safe, he said.
“You have to accept that, regardless of the situation, if you take a child into protective custody and place them in a foster home, you have traumatized them," Acosta said.
To remove a child from his or her home, investigators must prove to a judge that the child has suffered or is at the risk of suffering severe trauma, and that investigators made "reasonable efforts" to prevent moving the child.
“There are no real, clear definitions with regard to ‘urgent’ and ‘immediate necessity,’ and regard to ‘reasonable efforts.’ The interpretations vary depending on what jurisdiction you’re in," Acosta said.
Further complicating investigations are gaps in communication regarding family histories, according to a Chapin Hall report examining DCFS' Intact Family Services.
Although police and DCFS investigators previously had contact with AJ and his family before Dec. 18, unsubstantiated claims are expunged from the agency's record of the child, the Chapin Hall report revealed. While Acosta might not have had access to all previous DCFS reports that referenced AJ, he did speak with a past DCFS investigator on Dec. 20, 2018 regarding her unsubstantiated findings, DCFS records show.
Still, police departments and DCFS are separate entities, and investigators' findings are limited to the home conditions, child well-being, and interview statements they receive throughout the course of their investigation, Acosta said.
According to DCFS' website, police and DCFS may conduct a joint investigation, or the police may conduct their own investigation.
"The investigative specialist may also need to contact the police if individuals refuse to cooperate with the investigation," a summary of investigative procedures stated. "The investigative specialist is required to gather all available information during the course of the investigation."
While previous reports that resulted in an arrest may guide DCFS workers' investigations, they aren't the crux on which a determination is made.
In the case of the Dec. 18 investigation, DCFS received a hot line call reporting "environmental neglect" relating to a bruise on AJ's hip – the cause of which neither Acosta nor a doctor could determine – and unsafe home conditions, which Acosta said were cleaned up by the time he conducted a home visit.
Details revealed in a now-sealed police affidavit, however, pieced together a much more violent picture of AJ's home life. Freund allegedly told investigators on April 24, more than a week after AJ died,that cold showers and "hard physical beatings" were regular occurrences at the Dole Avenue home.
He went on to tell police how he and Cunningham forced AJ into a cold shower more than a week earlier, according to a police affidavit. Upon discovering AJ dead hours later, Freund wrapped the boy's body in plastic and stored him in the basement of their Crystal Lake home for almost two days. On April 17, Freund buried his son in a shallow grave and falsely reported him missing the next morning, police records show. Both parents are charged with first-degree murder.
Until those details emerged, there was only one documented account of either parent being accused of possibly physically harming AJ. Heavily redacted police reports and emails obtained through FOIA requests have provided some insight into the Dec. 18 investigation concerning the alleged abuse and neglect at the home.
The 911 call
Police had contact on and off with Cunningham and Freund throughout AJ's life.
During one instance, Crystal Lake officers were called at 7:49 a.m. Dec. 18 to a Taco Bell parking lot after Cunningham reported that a man, whose name was redacted from police reports, stole her prescription medications and cellphone.
When officers arrived, they met Cunningham, who had two children in the backseat of her vehicle, police reports show. Cunningham told police that she was at home when the unidentified man "came in the door asking for money," according to the report.
When Cunningham refused to give the man money, he stormed off the property. That's when Cunningham realized her prescriptions and phone were missing, according to police reports.
Having no way to contact the police, Cunningham placed the boys in the car and drove to Taco Bell, where she requested they contact 911 for her, the report stated.
Meanwhile, another officer made contact about 8:30 a.m. with the unnamed man, who was spotted in the parking lot of Associated Bank, 180 W. Virginia St., Crystal Lake. The man told police he was on his way to cash in winning scratch-off tickets and was "intent on staying out of trouble." He ultimately was found not to be in possession of any of the allegedly stolen items, police reports show.
In her Jan. 1 email, Cunningham said Nowicki was arrested Dec. 18 after allegedly fighting off hospital staff who were trying to treat him for what Cunningham referred to as "a deep psychosis."
"[He] didn't know who he was, I was, anyone was, or even where he was at," Cunningham wrote. "I can definitely attest to this because I have been dealing with this with him for several weeks. He kept getting worse and worse."
Nowicki was in custody at the McHenry County Jail when AJ was reported missing. He faces no charges in connection with the boy's death.
Police inspect the home
When officers met Cunningham back at her home to make sure the man had not returned, they noted the house was "cluttered, dirty and in disrepair," police reports show.
"The ceiling in the kitchen appeared to have water damage and was peeling and open to the piping in one portion. The door appeared to be covered in a brown substance," one officer wrote. "The living room had a couch that was complete[ly] covered in piles of clothing. The dining room was covered in clothes and boxes and bags. Upstairs in the room where the boys slept the window was open and the smell of feces was overwhelming. Ofc. Trimpe took photographs of the residence, which were downloaded onto the evidence drive at the Crystal Lake Police Department."
Officer Nickolaus Trimpe later sent those photos to Crystal Lake police officer Phillip Lloyd-Miletus, who forwarded the email to Acosta, according to emails obtained from Crystal Lake policethrough a FOIA request.
The photos depict a cluttered home with clothes and toys strewn about the living room. One photo of what appears to be a child's bedroom showed a converted crib, a mattress with stained sheets on the floor, and a children's potty training seat buried in a pile of furniture.
While officers were inside the home, they observed that AJ, who was dressed only in a diaper, had a large, suspicious bruise on his hip, police reports show. After learning Cunningham had driven to and from the Taco Bell parking lot on a revoked driver's license, officers arrested the mother and escorted her and her sons to the police department.
It was at that time Crystal Lake police contacted DCFS to advise them about AJ's bruise. By that time, AJ was clothed and seemed healthy, Acosta said. Unable to determine the cause of the bruise, both boys were released to Freund on the condition that AJ be taken to a doctor as soon as possible. During Acosta's interview with Cunningham at the police station, the mother appeared "scared" and "tearful," he said.
At the police department, officers fed the boys a McDonald's cheeseburger and chicken nuggets as they tried to speak with AJ about the bruise.
AJ told police he must have gotten the bruise when his dog pawed at him.
Cunningham, who also was questioned about the bruise, told police she had "no idea where it came from" and denied having ever hit AJ, police reports show.
At the hospital, AJ provided an alternate explanation for the bruise, according to DCFS records.
"Maybe someone hit me with a belt," AJ told the doctor. "Maybe mommy didn't mean to hurt me."
Acosta and his supervisor reviewed the investigation, and on Jan. 4, they ruled the report unfounded based on a lack of evidence of cuts, welts and bruises, DCFS records show.
The home visit
Acosta conducted an unannounced home visit Dec. 19. Although the living room and dining room remained cluttered with clothes and toys, the house appeared to have been cleaned before Acosta's arrival, he said.
“We see that regularly with those types of investigations," he said.
While speaking with Freund that day, the father seemed "harried" and "stressed," Acosta said.
Freund denied using corporal punishment, and he told the investigator that Cunningham was not using drugs.
Both Freund and Cunningham are admitted recovering addicts, according to police reports. DCFS records show that AJ spent about 1½ years in foster care after he was born with opioids in his system in 2013.
Acosta and another DCFS employee, whose name has not been released, have been placed on desk duty while the agency conducts an internal investigation – a common procedure when a case involves a child's death.
“I think one of the things that really gets lost in the conversation … is it’s very easy to label a state employee as a mindless, heartless bureaucrat," Acosta said. "Most of us live in the county. We all live here. We’re your neighbors. We work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The news of AJ's death has devastated Acosta, who said he has lost 10 pounds and struggled to sleep at night.
“I’ve gone round and round over my contact with the family," Acosta said. "I ask myself that question a lot: 'Would I have made a different decision in December?' "
He always comes to the same conclusion: Under the rules DCFS workers are expected to follow, he made the right call.
“Do I think statutory remedies are necessary? Yes," Acosta said. "I don’t know where that balance is.”