Editorial: Our debt to A.J.

  • A.J. Freund and his family were not strangers to the Illinois child protection system. Now, his parents are charged with beating and killing him.

    A.J. Freund and his family were not strangers to the Illinois child protection system. Now, his parents are charged with beating and killing him. Photo Courtesy Davenport Family Funeral Homes and Crematory

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted4/27/2019 2:00 PM

We are not particularly fans of Phillip C. McGraw, television's Dr. Phil, but we nonetheless are haunted this weekend by the ultimate truth of one of his admonitions:

"As a parent, it's your job to protect your children and put their interests fully and completely above your own."

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If the account of authorities is accurate, Andrew "A.J." Freund was tortured and beaten to death. Then, his body was wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave.

If the account of authorities is accurate, each of these things was done to him by one or both of his parents.

We all, as parents, as grandparents, as neighbors, as human beings, shudder in heartache at the thought, have trouble getting the awful imagined images of 5-year-old A.J.'s abuse out of our heads.

How could a parent do any of these things?

"As a parent, it's your job to protect your children and put their interests fully and completely above your own."

That job is not the job of the parent alone. It's the job of society, too, and one way or another, society let A.J. down.

The Freund family was well known to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. A.J. was taken into protective custody for a time shortly after he was born with drugs in his system, and that was only one in a long series of interactions DCFS had with the family. It was a troubled home by all accounts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Friday, Marc Smith, acting director of DCFS, said the two caseworkers charged with looking out for A.J.'s welfare have been removed from casework while their handling of the case is reviewed.

"The news of his death is heartbreaking and all of us feel this loss," the Chicago Sun-Times reported Smith as saying. "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."

That there is something wrong is clear beyond doubt. Clearly, something needs to change. But what's less clear is whether the problem is staffing, policy, procedure, incompetence, something else or some combination of all of that.

The DCFS mandate puts a priority on keeping children with their parents. Does that need to be re-evaluated?

DCFS has had 15 directors in 16 years. Is it reasonable to expect an agency with such instability in leadership to excel in its performance?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

We have a job to protect our children.

In that mission, it is essential that we demand excellence from DCFS. But it is essential too that we provide DCFS with the means to excel.

We have a job to protect our children. How committed are all of us to doing it?

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