Small but dedicated group works to keep spotlight on AJ Freund, DCFS

  • Demonstrators at the McHenry County courthouse want to keep the focus on the child welfare issues raised by the case of AJ Freund. From left are Tracy Kotzman, Rosa Mallette and Aurora Thornton.

      Demonstrators at the McHenry County courthouse want to keep the focus on the child welfare issues raised by the case of AJ Freund. From left are Tracy Kotzman, Rosa Mallette and Aurora Thornton. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • Aurora Thornton, left, and Tracy Kotzman, of ROAR for AJ, gathering outside the McHenry County courthouse as part of their effort to raise awareness and bring about change in the child welfare system they believe failed AJ Freund.

      Aurora Thornton, left, and Tracy Kotzman, of ROAR for AJ, gathering outside the McHenry County courthouse as part of their effort to raise awareness and bring about change in the child welfare system they believe failed AJ Freund. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • AJ Freund

    AJ Freund

 
 
Updated 9/9/2019 4:09 PM

Sometimes they get a wave or a honk of encouragement, but most of the time the small but dedicated group holding signs outside the McHenry County courthouse faces a lonely task.

While 10 or more have participated in some of the gatherings on behalf of slain 5-year-old AJ Freund and other abused children, "group" might be too strong a description for those who spend hours in silent demonstration.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Often, Tracy Kotzman, who founded the ROAR for AJ Facebook group, is alone on days when there are court proceedings involving AJ's parents, Andrew Freund and JoAnn Cunningham, who are charged with his murder in April.

Other days Kotzman is joined by Aurora Thornton, who partnered with her early on, or by a smattering of other supporters. ROAR for AJ members have assembled about a dozen times in all, either at the courthouse or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services office in Woodstock.

They view the gatherings as sometimes discouraging but important and necessary to keep public attention focused on the state system they contend failed to protect AJ and others. And they hope something changes.

"I don't have the education or the means. However, I can go stand somewhere and I can hold a sign, and maybe it will reach somebody who can (enact) change," Kotzman said.

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That could include revising standards for keeping families "intact" and providing better options to keep children in troubled families out of harm's way, she said.

"Some people find it silly. I've been called a bored housewife who has nothing better to do," Kotzman said. "My response is, 'You know what? This is the lives of children. I don't have anything better to do.'"

The group doesn't agitate or use megaphones or chants to make its point.

"We've always called it a peaceful demonstration," Thornton said. "I can't imagine anyone would disagree there needs to be changes made."

Some in and around the courthouse who are familiar with the system and AJ's story have encouraged them to keep doing what they're doing.

"I definitely think people know we're here," Thornton said. "I do think we make a difference."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Thornton, 28, grew up in Fox River Grove and lives in McHenry. She has two kids and works full time. Kotzman, 47, grew up in Carpentersville and lived in Champaign for several years before retiring from a career in customer service and moving to northern McHenry County in 2013 to assume responsibility for her father's estate.

"I don't even have children, yet it affects me," Kotzman said. "I'm mad as hell."

The pair met a few months ago after becoming involved in a different Facebook effort on behalf of AJ. Both left after questions about the group's vision arose but stayed connected after Kotzman founded ROAR for AJ.

Neither had taken ownership of an issue like this before nor sought the spotlight. But both had followed the case and said they were moved to channel their sorrow and anger into action.

"People were asking, 'Why did they (parents) still have this boy?'" Kotzman said, referring to the family's long history with DCFS beginning when AJ was temporarily removed from his home after being born with opiates in his system. "You realize something is messed up."

Besides the demonstrations, the pair have met with politicians; asked at a McHenry County Board meeting for the resignation of board member Carlos Acosta, who works for DCFS; requested records; and continued research on DCFS policies and procedures.

Kotzman plans to continue hosting the gatherings and is seeking suggestions and expertise to help grow the effort.

"There are plenty of (other) things I could be doing, but to me, there's nothing more important," she said.

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