'DCFS is afraid of getting sued': Experts on the possible reasons AJ Freund's parents retained custody
Police, neighbors and even family members questioned the fitness of AJ Freund's parents.
It happened on multiple occasions, and still JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr. were allowed to retain custody of 5-year-old AJ and a younger brother.
Now the pair are charged with AJ's murder, accused of forcing him to endure an "extended" cold shower while beating him on the head with such force it eventually killed him.
AJ spent the first 18 months of his life in foster care and then lived in a home filled with feces, urine, clutter and other garbage for the remainder of his short life, according to public records.
"It's codified that the goal is to keep parents with their children," said Camille Goodwin, a Woodstock-based attorney who has served as guardian ad litem for children involved in several Illinois Department of Children and Family Services custody cases in McHenry County. "The original goal in any of these cases is a return home."
Experts in Illinois custody law believe the state's subjective definition of neglect played a significant role in the DCFS investigators' inability to remove AJ and his brother from their parents' home.
"DCFS is afraid of getting sued, and that's why they don't want to bring kids into care," said James McIntyre, co-founder of the Illinois chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America.
McIntyre has worked as a foster child advocate and policy adviser on state legislation related to foster care and adoption. He believes that without evidence of abuse, DCFS investigators are far more likely to leave children in their parents' homes even if there may be a reasonable assumption of neglect.
Genie Gillespie, an attorney who specializes in adoption law, said, "It's the investigators who make the decision, and some of it is really a judgment call."
DCFS officials did not respond to requests for information about the agency's handling of complaints against AJ's parents.
Most of the complaints about the couple involved the condition of their house in Crystal Lake, not about the condition of their children. Police notified DCFS in December about the house, but investigators did not remove AJ or his brother, despite a report from the police that the smell of feces in the boy's bedroom was "overwhelming."
Police claim they contacted DCFS in September to notify them that the electricity was out in the house. A police report stated that a DCFS official said the lack of electricity in a house doesn't warrant a DCFS investigation. DCFS did not include that contact in its list of dealings with Cunningham and Freund Sr.
Even a 2013 court document filed by Cunningham's mother to retain custody of Cunningham's oldest son never outlined accusations of abuse. Instead, it documented an array of disturbing conditions inside the house. The boy's grandmother ultimately retained custody.
Only when AJ was born with opiates in his system in 2013 was an accusation of abuse against his parents upheld. That led to his being placed in foster care for 18 months and under DCFS supervision for another 10 months before the case was closed.
Goodwin said there are so many required legal steps at predetermined intervals for parents to regain custody in these types of cases that AJ's parents must have hit them all and met all the court-ordered requirements to get him back.
"Honestly, 18 months seems pretty quick for a return home," she said. "I would consider they must have done a phenomenal job."
The state is also experiencing a dearth of foster homes. So as a practical matter, it's harder for DCFS to place abused and neglected children in foster care, experts said.
"Several of our counties have been very hard-hit," said Susan McConnell, founder and executive director of Let It Be Us, an advocacy group for foster care adoptions.
"Right now, 40 percent of our McHenry County children are placed in foster homes outside the county."
McConnell's organization is hosting a "foster care information fair" with local legislators at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 4, at the Libertyville Civic Center, 135 W. Church St.
Gillespie believes DCFS cases go through cycles.
"It's a pendulum that swings back and forth," she said. "There are periods where the majority of children remain in their homes during investigations with service from DCFS in place and safety plans. Because of this case, I think the pendulum is going to swing in the other direction now."