Defense attorneys take on expert witness in trial of ex-DCFS workers

Attorneys for two former child protection workers on Wednesday challenged the prosecution's expert witness who asserted they made crucial mistakes that led to AJ Freund's death in 2019.

Rebecca Lee, an attorney for Carlos Acosta spent much of Wednesday questioning Carol Ruzicka, a former Department of Children and Family Services administrator. Among other things, Lee questioned Ruzicka about Acosta's workload and his handling of a case filed before the Crystal Lake boy was killed by his parents.

Lee also noted that 123 children who had cases with DCFS have died since July 1, 2018, and AJ's death marked the only case that led to criminal charges against two department employees.

Acosta, 57, of Woodstock, and his former supervisor, Andrew Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, are each charged with two counts of endangering the life of a child and health of a minor and one count of reckless conduct. Wednesday marked the third day of trial for both men.

They are accused of failing to take the required protective measures to protect AJ after an emergency call was made on Dec. 18, 2018, by a Crystal Lake police officer who testified Monday.

At the time, the officer said AJ's home at 94 Dole Ave. was cold, "filthy," smelled of urine and feces. She also saw AJ had a large bruise on his hip and a fat lip.

The DCFS investigation of alleged abuse was closed in January 2019 and classified as "unfounded."

Just four months later, AJ was killed by his parents JoAnn Cunningham, 40, and Andrew Freund Sr., 64. Cunningham is serving 35 years for first-degree murder and Freund Sr. 30 years in prison for aggravated battery to a child, involuntary manslaughter and concealment of a homicidal death.

Prosecutors have argued that if Acosta and Polovin had followed procedures as they were "required," AJ's life could have been saved.

Defense attorneys, however, have maintained that the Woodstock field office the two worked out of was understaffed and overworked.

On Wednesday, during cross examination by Lee, Ruzicka said the average caseload for DCFS investigators should be 12 to 15.

Lee pointed out that at the time, Acosta was handling 21 cases and that the Woodstock office was over mandates set by a federal consent decree. Ruzicka said she could not comment, because she did not know how many cases he had.

Ruzicka, who said she is being paid $200 an hour for her expert testimony, testified about several areas where she believed Acosta and Polovin failed AJ in not following procedures outlined in a DCFS manual.

Directing Ruzicka to flip back and forth to various sections in a large binder, Lee seemingly sought to show that not all the steps and levels of reporting are required in every case.

Polovin's attorney, Matthew McQuaid also questioned Ruzicka.

He noted that Polovin made notes in AJ's file after 5:30 p.m. Dec. 18, 2018, referring to the past cases from 2013 when he was born with heroin in his system and two earlier incidents in 2018.

Polovin also advised Acosta of the next steps to take including contacting police, family members, taking photos of AJ and the house, learning more about AJ's injuries and whether the parents practiced corporal punishment, McQuaid said.

McQuaid questioned Ruzicka about the number of cases the Woodstock office was handling during this time with just seven investigators. He also asked Ruzicka, who was a regional administrator at the time of AJ's death, if she felt any guilt. She said, "No."

McQuaid noted the pressure employees are under to close out cases within 60 days. Ruzicka agreed there are deadlines but said extensions can be granted. She also agreed with McQuaid's assertion that the job often is based on judgment calls.

The day ended with testimony from Shannon Krueger, a nurse practitioner who has examined many victims of child abuse. She worked with Acosta and Polovin through DCFS but said she was not called to examine AJ.

Based on the photographs showing a cluster of bruising around his hip, Krueger said she did not believe it was caused by a dog, as AJ and his mother said. She also said that bruise, along with bruising on his face and an injury to his lip "would indicate child abuse."

If convicted on the most serious charge, Acosta and Polovin could face two to five years in prison and fines of up to $25,000. The conviction also is probational.

The trial continues Thursday morning.

Trial starts for DCFS workers who handled AJ Freund's case

Witness says ex-DCFS workers were 'ultimately responsible' for AJ

Carlos J. Acosta
Andrew R. Polovin
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