Ahead of mother's sentencing Thursday, ralliers gather for 5-year-old, other slain children
Most of the balloons arranged in an arch on the Woodstock square Saturday afternoon were black and blue -- one the color of mourning and the other a favorite of a little boy who had been beaten to death.
White balloons representing innocence also were intertwined in the centerpiece assembled on the pavilion for a rally to remember and demand justice for 5-year-old AJ Freund, who died in April 2019.
In December, his mother, JoAnn Cunningham pleaded guilty to AJ's murder in their Crystal Lake home. She faces up to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole. Sentencing by Judge Robert Wilbrandt is scheduled for Thursday.
People gathered Saturday in the Woodstock Square also in memory of other children who have died while on the radar of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and to demand changes within the agency, which had several encounters with AJ's family.
"Look at that face," said Tracy Kotzman, who founded the ROAR for AJ Facebook group and organized Saturday's event. "He was 5 years old. We want justice, but more importantly, we want change."
At the base of the pavilion were little cardboard cutouts of children to represent the 123 child deaths in 2019 investigated by the DCFS inspector general's office. Participants say DCFS was "deliberately indifferent" in its dealings with AJ and have called for charges to be brought against the caseworker and supervisor.
For the past 14 months, Kotzman and a small but determined group have stood vigil outside the McHenry County courthouse on the many days of court proceedings for Cunningham and AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr.
In February, Freund Sr., who also is charged with murder and other offenses in connection with the death, waived his right to a jury trial and asked to have his case decided solely by a judge. A status hearing on his trial date is scheduled for July 30.
Kotzman said a more formal program with speakers to mark the anniversary of AJ's death and to honor National Child Abuse Prevention month had been planned for April but was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Saturday's rally in advance of the sentencing was scheduled from 3 to 7 p.m. to be followed by a candle lighting memorial ceremony to remember AJ and other children.
"When I saw his face on the news, it struck a chord in me. Things could have been different," said Michelle Egizio, a Naperville resident who joined ROAR for AJ early on.
Rachel Inserra came to Woodstock from St. Charles to support the cause.
"AJ is on my mind every day, so whatever I can do," she said. "I don't think people know the full impact of the story."
Sparse attendance at the beginning of the vigil was disappointing to Kotzman but she said it won't dilute the mission of standing up for kids.
"We're still here," she said.