Editorial: How legislators can protect kids like AJ

  • A.J. Freund, buried at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Cemetery in Palatine, would have turned 6 last week.

      A.J. Freund, buried at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Cemetery in Palatine, would have turned 6 last week. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 10/18/2019 1:31 PM

Those who keep A.J. Freund's memory alive ache for the lost chance to protect him, hug him, comfort him and love him.

Six months after the child's beating death, for which his parents are blamed, grief is still raw and answers seem slow in coming.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Why were A.J. and his younger brother left in the care of parents who constantly were involved with child protective services and were reported for possible neglect and abuse repeatedly in the final year of A.J.'s life?

Why was A.J. returned to his Crystal Lake home four months before his death after hinting a large bruise on his hip was inflicted by his mother?

Would he be alive if not for an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services policy that prioritizes keeping families together even after reports of child abuse or neglect? If weighing A.J.'s circumstances led DCFS caseworkers and supervisors to conclude the situation wasn't bad enough to warrant the boy's removal, that policy needs to be evaluated.

Our reporting last week, on the eve of what would have been AJ's 6th birthday, reveals one big deficiency. Services offered to parents who retain custody of their children under DCFS supervision are voluntary, not mandatory.

That means Head Start or other early childhood education can't be required, even for kids in families as troubled as A.J.'s and even though the DCFS inspector general last year recommended requiring enrollment for all young children under the agency's supervision as a way to keep them safe. Schools offer powerful protection because teachers are trained to spot abuse and required to report it, one reason for a sharp decline in beating deaths once children reach age 6.

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DCFS says it lacks the authority to require such interventions. That's something the legislature should remedy as quickly as possible.

AJ's death is an unspeakable tragedy even for many who never knew him. Imagining what went on in that house on Dole Avenue haunts neighbors and others who've organized to push for changes in a state system that failed to protect A.J.

We understand that placement in foster care can bring its own set of perils. Yet, any decision to keep children in their parents' households after evidence of abuse or neglect should come with strict requirements, including mandatory placement of children in early-childhood programs where they spend part of each day under the watchful eyes of adults other than their parents.

Simply offering such services is not good enough.

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