The head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said Friday that two workers who oversaw a case involving Andrew “AJ” Freund — the 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy who was allegedly killed by his parents — have been removed from casework.
Prior to presenting DCFS’ budget for fiscal year 2020 at a legislative hearing in Chicago, the agency’s acting director Marc D. Smith said the agency is conducting a thorough review of what happened before the boy’s body was found earlier this week.
“The news of his death is heartbreaking and all of us feel this loss,” Smith told lawmakers. “The death of a child that was in our care and a family that we were involved with is unacceptable to me and this department. DCFS is currently conducting a comprehensive review of our work with AJ’s family.”
Smith said the caseworker and supervisor who had been monitoring AJ and his parents, Andrew Freund Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, “have been placed on administrative duty and will have no casework responsibility as this review takes place. DCFS will also be reviewing all cases that have been handled by these two employees.”
Proposed DCFS budget seeks $75M in new funding
Smith said Gov. J.B. Pritzker is responding to issues at the agency with a budget that “reflects a significant investment in our children, young people and families.”
The proposal includes $75 million in additional funding, marking the biggest bump in funding for DCFS in more than 20 years. The proposed budget would allow for the hiring of 126 additional staffers, including more caseworkers and investigators.
“We have been under-resourced and understaffed for years,” Smith said.
Rep. Tom Weber (R-Lake Villa), who represents the district where A.J. was found, said he had “a lot of concerns” about the agency and its handling of the case.
“Is hiring 126 new employees the answer or is it policy?” Weber asked.
Smith said additional staff “will absolutely help,” to decrease the burden on existing employees and contractors who oversee cases.
Smith said there were 34 positions at the agency that currently need to be filled.
In response to a question about current caseloads from Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), Anne Gold, the agency’s associate deputy for child protection, said the agency aims for a 12:1 ratio of cases to caseworks, but that sometimes the ratio is above 15:1.
“We are monitoring that very closely on a monthly basis,” Gold said.
Beyond reducing caseloads, Smith said the agency will need to address systemic issues at the agency, including an overhaul its training programs for state workers and contractors and better cooperation with other state agencies.
“These children are the children of the state of Illinois and we need to partner to do the best we can to protect these kids,” Smith said. “My commitment and the commitment of my team is that we’re going to try to make the best decisions that we can make to ensure that we make the strongest safety decisions that we can.”
DCFS to continue efforts to keep children in their homes
Smith said the agency will continue to make an effort to keep children in their homes and support them “in the structures that they live” with the help of community partners.
“These families need help and our role is to get in there and help these families. And so we’re going to work hard to make sure that we’re using the structures in the communities as they exist to move forward,” he said.
Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin) said she considered herself “fortunate” that she was taken from the custody of her teenage mother and placed into her grandparents home when she was found to have been exposed to heroin at birth.
“No one wants to be in the situation where we’re hearing about another child being murdered by their parents because DCFS felt that was the most appropriate place for them to be,” Moeller said.
Smith said the agency will be reviewing how they make those decisions and will implement changes based “on best practice and our best work.”
“Children should be home with their parents when they can provide them a safe and nurturing home, and I think we should maintain that as one of the cornerstones in the way we deliver our service to children and families,” Smith said.
Timeline in Freund case released, detailing abuse concerns
A new timeline released Friday detailing state child welfare investigators’ interactions showed that four months before his parents allegedly beat him to death after forcing him to take a cold shower, the boy told a doctor during an emergency room visit that “maybe someone hit me with a belt,”
“Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” AJ told the doctor on Dec. 18, after DCFS received a hotline report alleging “environmental neglect” of the boy and his younger brother, as well as “cuts, welts and bruises” to AJ.
The DCFS investigator told Freund Sr. to pick up AJ and his brother from the hospital “until the home environment can be assessed,” and asked him “to remain in the home as a safety precaution,” the report says.
The investigator made an unannounced home visit the next day, according to the timeline. It’s unclear if it was the same investigator who had been in touch with the family Dec. 18.