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Saying goodbye to a 5-year-old who deserved much better

Andrew "AJ" Freund | National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

I know what you would say to us.

“Don’t worry. It’s not your fault. You didn’t mean to hurt me.” Heck, you would probably say you deserved to have the crap kicked out of you.

Maybe it was just bad luck. If you had been born into royalty, millions of strangers would have worried about you before you were even born.

Instead, before you were born, while you were still in the womb, your mother was taking opiates.

OPINION

Bad break. Bad luck. Bad parents.

You deserved better. You were beaten, forced to live in fear and filth. The good news, the torture lasted only five years.

Our fault. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services failed you. Neighbors, relatives and our entire social system failed you.

We feel bad. I hope you saw all the stuffed animals, cards and religious offerings people left in front of your house, A.J. It’s what we call a memorial, although the best way to remember you might have been placing a giant autopsy photograph in front of your home.

That’s an awful image. And we don’t like to think about awful stuff. It makes us feel lousy.

So, let’s look on the bright side. What a brave little lad you were. You tried so hard to protect your parents.

When a doctor found a bad bruise on your hip and someone asked you about it, you said it came from the family dog. Or maybe it was your mother who said that. Doesn’t really matter. It sounded good at the time.

Somewhere along the way, you said maybe it wasn’t the dog. Maybe someone hit you with a belt. With conflicting testimony like that, what did you expect authorities to do?

“Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” you explained.

Reading those words, hearing them reported on television, leaves us with a feeling of sorrow so deep that it was difficult to watch the new Avengers movie, enjoy the baseball game or just have a few brews with buddies.

We managed. That’s what we do.

You’re not the first child to die on our watch. Heck, it sometimes seems like there’s a child a week dying under the watchful eyes of DCFS. They find dead kids stuffed under sofas like forgotten slippers.

We feel bad about all of that.

Well, your parents should have done better. We can’t be everywhere. It’s difficult enough to raise and protect our own children. Who knows when someone’s going to walk into a house of worship and murder people?

We can’t be responsible for everyone else’s kid.

I hear your dad put you in a shower, put freezing cold water on and then beat you to death. Maybe it was your mom. Well, stuff happens.

We feel bad.

Really, really bad.

That means something, doesn’t it?

I can see your sweet smiling face underneath a Nike baseball cap looking as if none of this bad stuff ever mattered. “It’s OK,” you seem to be saying. “I was happy in this moment. You did the best you could.”

Damn right we did.

Listen, bad stuff happens to good people. We go to church, donate to charities, tell all our friends on Facebook that your death broke our hearts.

It wasn’t our fault. You would say as much, if you weren’t dead. Somehow, you always knew the adults weren’t to blame for the way you were treated.

You’re probably telling someone right now, “They didn’t mean to hurt me. They didn’t mean to neglect me. It was probably just a mistake.”

All right. Enough with the excuses. We don’t need you to defend us.

Life goes on. Well, for some of us it does.

Sorry kid. We tried. Sort of.

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