Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Illinois newspapers

Updated 12/12/2019 3:22 PM

Dec. 12, 2019

Chicago Tribune


Reckoning over AJ Freunds tragic'abuse must continue

Some heart-rending stories come with consoling platitudes to match. Maybe the victim didn't suffer long. There was nothing anyone could have done. The death of 5-year-old AJ Freund never came with any such consolations, not even that his short life had at least offered him the comforts of a mother.

This is a disturbing case to consider, but consider it we must, precisely because it is painful. Last week, JoAnn Cunningham pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of her little boy after months of lying about what happened to him, as prosecutors released new evidence about his ongoing abuse at her hands. After his body was found in a shallow grave in April, a story of missed signals quickly emerged. AJ could have been rescued from a living hell long before he was punished to death for hiding soiled underwear.

AJ's torture took place in a house near downtown Crystal Lake, on the route where the Fourth of July parade passes by. The night he died, he was forced into a cold shower and beaten to death, police say, then placed in a plastic tote and buried by his father, Andrew Freund, who is also charged with murder.

For two years prior, AJ's abuse hid in sickeningly plain sight. He was seen bruised in church and at the hardware store. Neighbors saw him trick-or-treating with clumps of hair missing, Vaseline smeared on his face and medical tape wrapped around his head and torso, according to prosecutors. One neighbor asked if he was dressed as a mummy. Cunningham said he had spilled boiling water on himself. She repeatedly took her son on errands to a credit union. One day, AJ arrived with black eyes and bruises. Mom told staff he fell down the stairs. Three weeks later, AJ was black and blue again. Mom said he hit himself with power tools. Third time: Yet more bruising on AJ's face. Mom didn't bother to explain.

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Was everyone fooled by manipulative mom and lawyer dad well after Cunningham had relapsed into heroin use? Did people turn away? Did they call the Department of Children and Family Services hotline to report abuse, only to see nothing done about it?

Cunningham had the experts fooled, too, and DCFS is reckoning with its own failures. The state has increased investment in technology, training and funding to lessen caseloads on overburdened investigators. DCFS favors leaving kids in homes, even troubled ones, if danger does not appear imminent, a posture that needs a new look.

As reporter Christy Gutowski has meticulously recounted in the Tribune, the system worked for AJ at the start of his troubled life. Born with heroin in his body, he was quickly placed into foster care with a relative who gave him a wonderful start in life. His parents quit drugs and passed years of random screenings. But once things went bad, they went really bad. 'Workers seemed unable to take in the full family history and piece together the extent to which AJ was in peril,' Gutowski reported.

AJ himself knew. Police acquired a video of an earlier incident showing him being cursed and choked by Cunningham in the bathroom until he gasped for air. 'I just don't want a family,' he says.


It took a village to let AJ die. He was trotted around town visibly battered. Mandated reporters saw red flags. Yet he was sent home time after time to endure more. No system or society should sit easy with this.


Dec. 12, 2019

The News-Gazette (Champaign)

Business as usual

Some things never change.

A recent story in the Arlington Daily Herald illustrates why taxpayers just can't win in this state's current political climate.

'Tollway boss brings in five former colleagues, at $893,000 a year,' the headline reads.

It will surprise exactly no one who pays attention that the individual now running the Illinois Tollway Authority is hiring longtime associates at excessive salaries.

That's what has been happening at the tollway since it became a reality in 1958. No matter the party in power, the tollway has always served as a haven where the politically connected can get jobs and win contracts.

But it may be somewhat of a surprise that the latest news about the tollway comes less than a year since there were similar news reports of political favoritism that was followed by bitter criticism.

The tollway then was under the authority of Republicans. Its chairman was former DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, a one-time GOP candidate for governor.

Democratic Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker professed to be disgusted by the situation. To help him clean house, the General Assembly passed legislation that allowed Pritzker to fire the nine-member tollway board and replace it with his own appointees.

The clear impression given was that there was a new sheriff in town - Pritzker - and that things would henceforth be run the right way.

Would that it be true.

The Daily Herald reports, however, that the tollway's new executive director, Jose Alvarez, has hired five associates to fill two existing and three newly created positions.

Alvarez is the former chief operating officer of the Chicago Housing Authority. His five new employees all worked with him there.

Alvarez insists this new group consists of the 'most highly qualified and capable people' available.

He knows that, of course, because of the extensive search he conducted, right? He pored over dozens of résumés until he found the perfect people for each position. They all just happened to be former friends and associates, right?

Wrong? There was no search. There were no multiple candidates from whom to choose.

The executive director just hired them because, he said, 'they understand and agree with my leadership style' and 'I trust them.' That must be why they're being paid so much more than their predecessors.

It's no coincidence that the previous tollway administration did things pretty much the same way, causing all kinds of complaints about party politics improperly influencing the tollway's operations.

Indeed, it would be surprising if the tollway was being managed any differently now, under Pritzker's control, than it was under his GOP predecessor.

Nonetheless, it is rather breathtaking how quickly the rhetoric about implementing a new way of doing business under a new governor proved to be so empty. Of course, it could be that the governor is sincere in his stated intentions and will endeavor to set things right. His efforts to do so would be a great subject for a future editorial.


Dec. 9, 2019

Chicago Sun-Times

A question for the holidays: Äre you OK to drive?

'Are you OK to drive?'

As a retired priest in Orland Park left a church Christmas party l at a restaurant in Orland Park last Wednesday, at least one person, and possibly others, asked the priest that question in so many words.

Was he fit to drive?

The 73-year-old retired priest, Paul Burak, assured them he was fine.

Then he got in his car, hit another car as he backed out of his parking spot, and drove away.

Seconds later, prosecutors say, Burak struck two women - both teachers in the church's elementary school - as they walked to their own cars.

One woman, Margaret 'Rone' Leja, was killed. The other woman, Elizabeth Kosteck, was seriously injured.

This tragedy is so familiar and common, which is why we are feeling so frustrated.

We don't know for sure that Burak was drunk, though he has been charged with aggravated driving under the influence and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. But we know drunk drivers kill - and are killed themselves - by the thousands each year in the United States, often right after after they have shaken off that most telling of questions: Are you OK to drive?

Every day, an average of 29 people are killed in drunk driving crashes - one person every 50 minutes.

We also know that the holidays put more drunk drivers on the road.

This editorial, then, is simply a holiday season reminder that we all do our best to keep people off the roads, including ourselves, when they have no business being behind the wheel of a car.

Ask that key question: Are you OK to drive? Ask it slowly and quietly, not in a confrontational way. Ask for the car keys if you have any doubts. Suggest another way to get home. Call the police if you must.

If somebody asks you if you're OK to drive, answer honestly if you are not: 'No. I could use a ride.' Take a cab or an Uber. Arrange for a ride in advance if you know you'll be drinking - or under the influence of any substance.

As of Jan. 1, recreational marijuana will be legal in Illinois, and we can't help but worry about what hospital emergency rooms will look like after midnight on New Year's Eve.

We want to stress that we are not prejudging Burak. We don't know all the facts.

Burak served honorably as a Catholic priest for 49 years, including his last nine as the pastor at St. Michael's parish in Orland Park, where the two teachers worked. He received a lifetime service award from Cardinal Francis George in 2014.

Burak's attorneys told a judge that he suffers from Parkinson's disease and glaucoma and drank only a Manhattan and a glass of wine at the church party.

But somebody asked Burak that night: 'Are you OK to drive?' And he said yes.

How often should the answer to that question really be 'No'?

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