Remembering tragedy can be link to hope

  • Jim Slusher

    Jim Slusher

 
 
Posted1/9/2020 1:00 AM

A.J. Freund died before his sixth birthday, but he may have accomplished something important in his difficult short life. That will not be because the Crystal Lake boy sought to change the world, of course, but precisely because the world was so cruel to him.

An aroused extended community saw his story and responded.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A.J.'s parents were charged with his murder after his body was found last April following several days of heavy publicity surrounding his disappearance. His mother pleaded guilty last month; his father is awaiting trial. It is a profoundly sad story, and one will search in vain for even a hint of a redeeming theme. Still, it may have some hopeful consequences for thousands of other young children like AJ who suffer hardship and abuse in the one place where every child should feel safe, the home.

On Saturday, our Jake Griffin described an inspector general's report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on A.J.'s case. The document is largely an assessment of DCFS's failures to protect not only A.J. but many other children under its watch. In that regard, its conclusions are, to echo the sentiment expressed by author Meryl Paniak, disheartening.

If there is something encouraging to be found, it is that A.J.'s story hasn't slid to the dark recesses of the public's attention. Significant developments like the watchdog report remain front-page news. Even secondary issues like the disposition of the house in which he lived with his parents find their way into the news, as with today's story by staff writer Mick Zawislak about a company's offer to demolish the vacant property for free.

In times of tragedy and crisis, it is common to hear calls to "remember" victims. It is coverage like this that keeps the memories alive and, just as important, helps strengthen the chances that something actually will be done.

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Paniak's report recommends a host of policy changes and training requirements within DCFS. It urges greater state investment in staffing and other resources to help caseworkers and supervisors manage an exhaustive workload. In previous news stories, Reporting by Griffin and staff writer Lauren Rohr found, among other things, that greater access to child care services could significantly decrease the risks that young children will be beaten to death at home. How many of these recommendations and observations will be put into action is an open, and not always encouraging, question.

Paniak's report emphasizes that she and previous authorities have raised alarms before. Still, her office investigated 123 child deaths last year, and 24 children were murdered who had prior contact with DCFS.

"I am disheartened that many of the problems I identify here have been identified before, both by me and my predecessor," Paniak writes in her report. "We, Illinois, must do better."

Perhaps thanks to the attention attracted by A.J. Freund's case, we someday will.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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