The short and chaotic life of AJ Freund: What DCFS and police saw and did
Wrapped in bandages on Halloween 2017, AJ Freund wasn't dressed as a mummy.
His mother, JoAnn Cunningham, told a Crystal Lake neighbor the boy had pulled boiling water off the stove on top of himself and they had been at the hospital. That's why they were so late trick-or-treating that night, Cunningham explained.
"That was the first time I met them," recalled Janelle Butler, who lives across the street from the family. "They seemed very nice. I took the story as is."
Neither the police nor the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have evidence of such an injury coming to the attention of either agency. It's unclear whether AJ was actually taken to a hospital.
But other details have emerged in the case that show many missed opportunities for authorities to intervene before AJ ultimately was killed two weeks ago. His parents are accused in his murder. According to state records:
• Cunningham was investigated for child neglect even before AJ was born, when she herself was a foster parent.
• AJ spent the first 18 months of his life in the care of his cousin after being born with opiates in his system.
• Back in his parents' home on Dole Avenue in Crystal Lake in June 2015, AJ's family had 17 unannounced visits from DCFS workers and nine scheduled visits, according to DCFS records.
He remained in the home, even after a doctor expressed concern to a DCFS investigator about a large bruise AJ had on his hip that his mom said was caused by the family dog. AJ agreed to that account but commented to the doctor, "Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn't mean to hurt me."
The agency says one thing did not come to its attention: a report about AJ and his younger brother living in their Crystal Lake home for an extended period last year without electricity. Crystal Lake police reported notifying DCFS, but the agency disputes ever receiving the information.
AJ was found dead Wednesday, a week after he was reported missing by his father, Andrew Freund Sr., who along with Cunningham is charged with murdering their 5-year-old son. Authorities say AJ was forced to stand in a cold shower and struck multiple time on the head, causing his death. His father is accused of burying the child's body, wrapped in plastic, in a shallow grave along a semirural right of way seven miles from his home.
The DCFS investigator and supervisor responsible for his case have been placed on administrative duty and reassigned to other duties while the agency reviews their work. And an entire community is reeling in the aftermath wondering what happened to AJ, who is described in his obituary as "a ray of sunshine with a smile that could light up the room."
Born Oct. 14, 2013, addicted to opiates, AJ spent 18 months as a ward of the state, placed with his cousin while his drug-addicted parents were ordered to undergo parenting classes, counseling and methadone treatment.
All that was happening while Freund Sr. was fighting a losing battle to keep from having his law license suspended and Cunningham was trying to regain custody of her oldest son from her mother.
A year before AJ was born, DCFS was called to investigate Cunningham. On two occasions in 2012, DCFS investigators were summoned to her house to determine if she was neglecting an unidentified child she was fostering as well as her oldest son, then 11, agency records show.
DCFS determined the allegations to be "unfounded," but by the end of the year Cunningham's son was living with his grandmother, where he stayed until he went to college this year.
Court records show a lengthy and often volatile legal fight between mother and daughter for custody of the boy. The boy's grandmother outlines her daughter's history of drug addiction and mental illness as well as her grandson's own pleas to stay in the grandmother's home.
Cunningham claims she ran away from her mother's home at age 15 because of her mother's "erratic and demeaning treatment" of her. The legal fight lingered for years, but ultimately the grandmother prevailed and retained custody of Cunningham's oldest son.
But while that court battle was raging, AJ was returned to his parents, who by then had another son, who is now 4 years old.
In the series of DCFS visits after AJ's return home in June 2015, "the worker does not observe any signs of abuse or neglect," a DCFS report states.
Less than a year later, DCFS closed the case even though at least one of Freund Sr.'s drug tests was deemed "invalid," according to DCFS.
While DCFS had no further contact with the family for more than a year, Crystal Lake police had numerous calls to the house.
Meanwhile, Freund's license to practice law was suspended for two years in October 2015, but he was given a stay and allowed to practice again in January 2016 as long as he underwent substance abuse treatment.
In March 2018, DCFS was called to investigate Cunningham again after she was found "unresponsive in a car" and brought to an emergency room for treatment. The report also stated AJ had "odd bruising on his face."
A DCFS investigator attempted to see AJ and his brother on three separate occasions in the next few weeks but was unsuccessful. The investigator finally made contact with Cunningham and the boys more than a month later and noted the boys were clean and did not show "signs of maltreatment."
In May 2018, the DCFS investigator closed the case after Cunningham reported to a drug-treatment program and the investigator found the house to be "clean, neat and adequately furnished," according to a DCFS report.
That's not how police described things a few months later. Officers responded to the house for a well-being check in September and discovered the house was without electricity, and had been for some time, they said Cunningham told them. Cunningham refused to let police inside but did have the boys come to the door. Police reported the boys were "healthy and happy."
The police report from that day indicates officers contacted DCFS about the situation but were rebuffed and told "a residence without power alone does not warrant a DCFS investigation."
However, child welfare experts agree that DCFS should have made contact again and offered access to special funds to help get the electricity turned back on.
The police report from that day indicates an unidentified female DCFS worker never returned a police officer's call. However, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said the agency has "no record of this call in our system."
In December 2018, police again got involved with the family. They reported deplorable conditions inside the home, including feces, urine, garbage and other clutter.
A hotline caller reported neglect and said AJ had "cuts, welts and bruises." On the same day, Cunningham was arrested on charges of driving without a license and police wanted her to take AJ to a doctor to get a bruise she claims was caused by the family dog checked out. That's when AJ suggested to the emergency room doctor that he might have been hit, according to a DCFS report.
Yet, the boys were returned to their home and a little more than two weeks later the hotline report was marked "unfounded."
That was the last contact between police, DCFS and the family until AJ was reported missing April 18. While police searched for AJ, DCFS authorities removed his younger brother from the home.
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.