Anger over 5-year-old AJ's death fuels interest in foster parenting
The tragic story of Andrew "AJ" Freund -- the Crystal Lake 5-year-old who authorities say was abused and killed by his parents -- is inspiring more people to look into becoming foster parents to children from troubled homes, child welfare advocates say.
"It sparked from a lot of anger and fear. ... People want something to do. People need some way to help," said Emily Kunash, president of Moms of McHenry County, whose roughly 300 members have been seeking avenues to help in the wake of AJ's death.
The group now is focused on forging relationships with local nonprofit organizations that serve foster children.
Hundreds of people are registered for two informational sessions on adoption and foster care Saturday in Libertyville and Tuesday in Woodstock.
"The silver lining is people are stepping up," said Susan McConnell, executive director and founder of Let It Be Us, a Barrington-based group organizing both events. "Our attendance numbers are doubled right now."
The group recruits foster and adoptive parents through fairs mostly in Cook, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.
AJ's body was found April 24 in a shallow grave near Woodstock seven days after his parents reported him missing. Parents JoAnn Cunningham, 36, and Andrew Freund Sr., 60, face first-degree murder and other charges.
The child died after being hit multiple times on the head, the McHenry County coroner's office reported. His younger brother, age 4, is in state custody.
Details of AJ's challenging life have raised concerns about the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services' handling of his case and shined a light on Illinois' foster care system.
The case also has raised awareness of the need for foster families and supporting local agencies serving children in foster care.
Illinois has 18,000 children in foster care, and that number is growing rapidly with 54% not returning to their birth parents, McConnell said.
"In McHenry County alone, 40% of the children in foster care have to be sent outside of McHenry County because they don't have enough licensed homes," McConnell said. "In Lake County, 37% of foster children are sent outside (the county). It disrupts their education. It takes away any resources that they have in terms of family, friends or neighbors.
"Illinois overall is down 20% on licensed foster homes. Awareness has been an issue, and there's also a stigma that follows children in foster care."
Cunningham, AJ's mother, once was a DCFS foster parent and was investigated for neglect in that role. After that, when AJ was born with drugs in his system, DCFS removed him from Cunningham's care for 18 months.
McConnell said a licensed foster home is "virtually" the safest place for a child in the foster system because the environment is scrutinized thoroughly. Foster parents must undergo 27 hours of training and a federal background check.
"It's not an easy process, and it shouldn't be an easy process," McConnell said.
Another way of getting involved is training to become a court-appointed special advocate assigned to a child in foster care, she said.
There is no cost to become a foster or adoptive parent. Foster parents must be at least 21 years old and can be married, in a civil union, single, divorced or separated, according to DCFS. The child receives a stipend to be used for his or her care.
It's something Meghan Anderson of Wonder Lake, a board member of Moms of McHenry County, had considered before she had two children of her own. AJ's case prompted "a sense of emergency ... that this needs to happen now," she said.
"I am excited to go to the informational meeting and hear about some of the options," Anderson said. "I hope those that are willing and able to help ... find the ways that they can effectively help. There's always something that can be done, and we just need to find out what that is."
Saturday's fair runs from 10 a.m. to noon at the Libertyville Civic Center, 135 West Church St., Libertyville. Tuesday's event will be from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mixin Mingle, 124 Cass St., Woodstock. Both events are free and open to the public and will feature a panel of experts, agencies offering foster care licenses, and time for questions and answers. To register, visit letitbeus.org/events.
How to become a foster parentIllinois has a growing need for foster families. Prospective foster parents must be at least 21 years old and can be married, in a civil union, single, divorced or separated. They must:
• Participate in a home inspection and social assessment.
• Complete 27 hours of training focused on foster care and the needs of children who are in foster care.
• Complete a criminal-background check of all household members.
• Be financially stable.
• Complete a health screening that includes verification that immunizations are up-to-date.
• For more information, visit illinois.gov/dcfs.
Source: Illinois Department of Children and Family Services