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AJ Freund, Semaj Crosby killings remind us we can’t count on parents or DCFS

JoAnn Cunningham and her husband Andrew Freund Sr. are charged with first-degree murder in 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund's killing. | Crystal Lake Police Department

We don’t want to think that someone who gave birth to a child would do what JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr. are accused of doing to 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund Jr.

And it is inconceivable to decent folk that a family could stuff a dead baby girl under a couch, the way Semaj Crosby was found two years ago, and still, two years later, no one has broken the silence surrounding the child’s death.

“This isn’t the case of a stranger. This is the case of someone who was supposed to love this child that is ultimately responsible for her death,” Dan Jungles, deputy chief of the Will County Sheriff’s Office, told the Sun-Times this past week.

Andrew was killed by blows to his head, his autopsy found.

OPINION

I saw Cunningham sob hysterically on the TV news when she told the world her son was missing from their Crystal Lake home.

But I had heard this story too many times. A child disappearing from bed in the middle of the night is a boogeyman’s tale. Too often, the boogeyman turns out to be a mother or father or paramour or relative.

After nearly a week of concerned neighbors and law enforcement frantically searching, Andrew’s body, wrapped in plastic, was found in a shallow grave a few miles from his home.

Police say the boy’s own father dug the grave.

Both parents have been charged with first-degree murder.

And now a community is in mourning, shocked by the unimaginable cruelty that took place right under their noses.

According to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ own timeline, the state agency’s involvement with the family began in 2012.

Andrew was born a year later with opiates and benzodiazepines in his system and was removed from his mother’s care.

He was returned when he was 18 months old. And in 2016, a juvenile court judge closed the case.

Andrew “AJ” Freund
Andrew “AJ” Freund. | National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

But there were numerous hotline reports in 2018, with allegations of environmental neglect, inadequate supervision and suspicious injuries.

“Both the caseworker and the supervisor responsible for this case have been placed on administrative duty and will have no casework responsibilities as this review takes place,” DCFS said Friday.

We still don’t know how the agency failed so miserably at protecting Semaj Crosby. A child-welfare worker had visited the home hours before the toddler disappeared and days before Joliet authorities declared the home uninhabitable.

It’s been two years since the 17-month-old’s body was found stuffed under a couch in a dilapidated house in Joliet that was overrun with dysfunctional relatives and other hangers-on.

No one has been charged in Semaj’s death. The toddler’s father is suing the mother, accusing her in his lawsuit of having placed Semaj under the couch.

What we do know is that there were numerous red flags that should have alerted child-welfare workers that Semaj was at risk for harm.

For one thing, there were about 30 people living in the Joliet home, according to a DCFS report following the toddler’s death.

The agency had gotten anonymous calls that occupants of the home “openly sell drugs and drink” on the children’s playground and that the children were outside all hours of the day and night.

Semaj Crosby was found dead inside a Joliet Township home in April 2017. | Provided photo
Semaj Crosby was found dead inside a Joliet Township home in April 2017. | Provided photo

A month before Semaj was killed, DCFS investigated a report that a 3-year-old living in the home was the “suspected victim of sexual abuse,” with sexual penetration as well as cuts, bruises, welts, abrasions and oral injuries. A boyfriend of a relative living in the house was suspected. But a doctor had difficulty precisely dating when the child was abused, leading to the report being labeled as unfounded.

In the agency’s review of its shortcomings in this case, DCFS concluded that multiple reports that involved “physical abuse allegations” to children who were age three and under and a seven year old child with “a significant history of emotional and behavioral disturbance … coupled with the vulnerability of the children” should have been recognized as requiring “comprehensive assessment and intensive interventions by both intact Family and Investigative staff.”

It is a crying shame these children had to depend on a bureaucracy to protect them in the first place.

Beyond that, Andrew’s death should remind us all that the crisis of opioid addiction is about more than drug overdoses. Public health officials are clear about what it takes to save drug addicts. But what about children growing up in the care of opioid-addicted parents?

The threat to these children is imminent.

For their sake, fixing DCFS has to be a priority.