Signs and ribbons line the street in front of the Davenport Family Funeral Home, where the visitation of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake is being held on Friday, May 3, 2019 in Crystal Lake. | Mark Black/For the Sun-Times

DCFS workers stuck with massive case overloads before AJ Freund’s beating death

SHARE DCFS workers stuck with massive case overloads before AJ Freund’s beating death
SHARE DCFS workers stuck with massive case overloads before AJ Freund’s beating death

The two state child welfare investigators who dealt with AJ Freund’s family were overloaded with other cases in the months leading up to the boy’s April beating death inside his parents’ squalid Crystal Lake home.

Those Illinois Department of Children and Family Services workers had been juggling caseloads well beyond limits set in a consent decree the agency has operated under for three decades, according to Heidi Dalenberg, an attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which oversees the court-ordered agreement.

Under the consent decree hammered out in 1988 after a probe ruled DCFS was providing inadequate care, investigators aren’t supposed to be assigned more than 12 new abuse or neglect cases per month during nine months of the calendar year, and no more than 15 cases during any of the remaining three months.

In 2018 — a year in which AJ’s family was the subject of two abuse investigations — one of the workers assigned to his case was overloaded for nine months out of the year, including one month the worker was tasked with nine assignments beyond the ordered limit, Dalenberg told a federal judge on Wednesday.

“There continue to be offices that are struggling with inadequate hiring and staffing,” including the Woodstock office that shepherded AJ’s case, Dalenberg said Thursday.

A DCFS worker and supervisor involved with AJ’s family have since been taken off casework and reassigned to administrative duties pending an internal review of the agency’s handling of AJ’s case.

McHenry County prosecutors accuse the 5-year-old’s parents, Andrew Freund Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, of beating the boy to death on April 15, burying his body in a shallow grave in rural Woodstock and then reporting him missing to police two days later.

DCFS workers had been in contact with AJ since he was born with opiates in his system and subsequently placed into foster care for most of the first two years of his short life.

Four months before he died of blunt-force trauma to the skull, a police officer noticed a large bruise on AJ’s hip, and the boy told a doctor: “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

That abuse allegation was ultimately ruled unfounded, as was another from March 2018 when someone reported “odd bruising” on the boy’s face. It took a month for an investigator to see AJ in person and deem there were no signs of “maltreatment,” according to a DCFS timeline.

A recent audit found the beleaguered child welfare agency — beset by a series of mishandled cases preceding child deaths in recent years — struggled to remain in compliance with the consent decree between 2015 and 2017. More than 78% of DCFS investigators received more than 15 new assignments during at least one month in that time frame, with 32 investigators averaging more than 15 case assignments per month over the three-year period.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has called the audit a “disturbing illustration of both the short and long term damage from hollowing out state government and DCFS’ longstanding problems serving our most vulnerable.”

Newly appointed DCFS director Marc Smith has said the agency is “fully committed to making substantial changes in how our agency serves vulnerable children and families.”

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