A little boy’s murder, a mother’s guilty plea and the future of DCFS

Thousands of children are victims of abuse and neglect, like AJ Freund. If we truly care about protecting them, Illinois must reform its child welfare agency.

SHARE A little boy’s murder, a mother’s guilty plea and the future of DCFS
A memorial for AJ Freund in Crystal Lake.

A memorial for AJ Freund in Crystal Lake that was set up shortly after his death earlier this year.

Mark Black/File photo for the Sun-Times

Andrew “AJ” Freund’s mother is headed to prison, where she belongs.

JoAnn Cunningham unexpectedly pleaded guilty Thursday to beating her 5-year-old son to death last year, a tragedy that made national headlines because of the horrifying abuse that AJ suffered even before his death.

You couldn’t read or hear his story without tearing up, feeling sick to your stomach.

There was the cold shower his mother subjected him to before she beat him to death. There’s the image that comes to mind when you read that his parents wrapped the boy’s dead body in plastic, buried him in a shallow grave near their Crystal Lake home and reported him missing to police.

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Their attempted cover-up unraveled when police discovered the boy’s grave. The public soon found out that little AJ endured many beatings in his short life, and no shortage of 20-minute cold showers, too. Those were his mother’s preferred form of “discipline” if he wet the bed or soiled his underpants. Forehead abrasions, in the same pattern as on the shower head, were among the many injuries found all over his frail body in an autopsy.

Cunningham, 36, pleaded guilty to avoid a life sentence. She now faces 20 to 60 years in prison, and she deserves every second of whatever she gets. Andrew Freund Sr., the boy’s father, is awaiting trial.

As part of Cunningham’s plea deal, prosecutors removed language from court documents describing AJ’s murder as “brutal and heinous.” In reality, what little AJ went through was exactly that. 

His story reminds us, once again, that thousands of other children live in similar circumstances of abuse and neglect. As a society that claims to care about the most vulnerable, we owe it to those children to do whatever we can to help.

According to data from the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Illinois.

  • On any given day, 222 reports of child abuse are made to authorities.
  • In 2018, DCFS found credible evidence of child abuse in nearly 34,561 cases.
  • One in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

Those children’s stories don’t make headlines. But like AJ, these are kids who may live with drug-addicted parents who can’t manage their own lives, much less take care of their children.

Maybe those parents, like AJ’s parents, subject their children to regular beatings as “discipline.” Caseworkers see it all the time. Or, like AJ’s parents, they let the family home become filthy and squalid. Caseworkers see that all the time, too.

Illinois must build a child welfare agency that can protect every one of those children, somehow, from abuse, neglect and death at the hands of adults. That’s an ideal, we know, that can never be fully achieved, but our state remains so far from it.

As Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert told us, when we asked for his thoughts about AJ, “A huge takeaway is the urgent need for reform to come to DCFS now.” The agency, he said, “missed or ignored red flag after red flag after red flag of child abuse and endangerment.”

What’s a red flag?

How about that day, in December 2018, when AJ’s parents told a doctor that the family dog caused a bruise on the child’s hip.

AJ’s words to the doctor were heartbreaking, and an obvious indication that something was terribly wrong: “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

DCFS workers let AJ’s parents take him home from the hospital anyway.

Earlier this year, in harsh and sobering reports, both Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino documented rampant dysfunction at DCFS that has been the norm for too long.

A University of Illinois study, released last month, on the agency’s 24-hour abuse and neglect hotline was similarly critical, citing problems with understaffing and outdated technology.

Comparing the Illinois hotline to those in seven other states, the U of I report found that Illinois’ hotline was the only one that was too understaffed to handle an ever-increasing volume of calls reporting suspected abuse and neglect.

The hotline received 268,406 calls in fiscal year 2019, a 21% increase over the 222,719 calls received in 2014. Many callers waited days for a callback so that they could give more details. Because of understaffing, hotline workers often were forced into mandatory overtime. 

Meanwhile, what happens to those kids?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has promised sweeping change for the better at DCFS, with more money, more caseworkers, additional training and a new acting director, Marc D. Smith. State legislators, too, are keeping an eye on the agency via a child welfare reform caucus that is expected to suggest reforms and legislation to make the agency better.

Illinois can make DCFS a national model, rather than a train wreck. We must provide the resources — whatever it takes.

In one small way, Illinois can claim a margin of success in the world of child welfare. Death due to child maltreatment in Illinois in 2016 was 2.16 per 100,000 children, slightly lower than the national rate of 2.36.

But beating the national average did not save AJ.

The only monster a child should ever see is in a picture book.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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