Could preschool have saved AJ Freund's life?
Data shows beating deaths drop sharply when children reach school age
AJ Freund was months away from starting kindergarten when he was beaten to death.
There's no indication he had attended day care or early childhood education, even though the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services inspector general last year recommended enrolling all young children under the agency's supervision in such a program as a way to keep them safe.
There also is no evidence AJ's parents -- who stand accused of his murder -- were told by the state child protection agency how to access a voluntary, subsidized child care program funded under a law that went into effect in February, DCFS officials acknowledge.
Having those extra sets of eyes on a boy in peril could have changed his fate, child care experts said.
AJ was killed six months ago this week in his Crystal Lake home, according to authorities.
He would have turned 6 on Monday, an age at which deaths from beatings drop sharply, an analysis of DCFS data shows. Not coincidently, experts say, it's also the age of required school attendance.
"Any child under 6, we know there's a heightened risk," said Meryl Paniak, the acting Illinois Department of Children and Family Services inspector general.
More than 87% of the 302 children in Illinois who were beaten to death from 2006 to 2017 were age 5 or younger, according to a Daily Herald analysis of the Illinois Child Death Review Teams' annual reports for those years. Most, like AJ, were killed by a parent or guardian, according to the reports.
The results of the analysis don't surprise child protection experts, who point out younger children are smaller and easier to harm, less likely to tell what's going on, and "at home with their parents 24/7," said Dr. Mary Jones, a child abuse pediatrician at Loyola Medical Center and chairwoman of the Aurora subregion Child Death Review Team. Jones' group is one of nine teams across the state that investigate deaths of children who had been involved with DCFS in the last year of their lives, as well as most other child homicides.
Experts long have documented the protection day care or school provides, with children spending part of each day under the care of adults trained to spot abuse or neglect and required to report it.
"Twenty-three years of closely analyzing child death cases has resulted in a wealth of data and analysis concerning those factors that are consistent with child well-being and safety," a 2018 report from the DCFS inspector general's office reads.
The report goes on to recommend all children 5 and younger who are under the child welfare agency's supervision be "enrolled in, and attending, day care or Head Start" as a "protective" measure.
Despite the recommendation, DCFS has no authority to require participation in such programs, even for families like AJ's, agency spokesman Jassen Strokosch said.
The family was on DCFS' radar for most of AJ's short life. Social workers from the state agency made dozens of visits to the home. Cunningham and Freund were reported for possible neglect or abuse at least twice in 2018 alone, according to state records.
A law signed in 2018 did make families involved with DCFS eligible for subsidized child care or early childhood education under the Child Care Assistance Program. Like all services provided for children participating in the agency's "Intact Family Services" program, it is "entirely voluntary," Strokosch said.
The law was meant to help the most vulnerable, like AJ, said state Sen. Pat McGuire, a Democrat from Joliet who sponsored the bill.
"One reason I pointedly remember for this law was to have a trained set of eyes to observe any troubling behavior or any troubling physical condition of the child," McGuire said.
Yet, there is no evidence AJ's parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., knew about the resources that could have provided respite for them and their son.
Their caseworker, who was reassigned to other duties within the agency after AJ's death, never indicated that he had informed AJ's parents about the child care opportunities they were eligible to receive, according to Strokosch.
"That doesn't mean it didn't happen. I just don't have documentation of it," he said.
Investigators from several agencies involved in the inquiry into AJ's death could not find any evidence of the boy being enrolled in any child care or early education program. Officials at the two Head Start programs in his hometown said he was never enrolled in any of their classes, which are held only a few blocks from the family's home.
The Illinois Child Death Review Teams' reports do not indicate how many of the children age 5 and under had been in child care or an early childhood program at the time of their deaths.
Meanwhile, the number of children beaten to death in Illinois began to climb again in 2014, after declining over the previous few years. Thirteen children succumbed to injuries from being beaten in 2014, 16 in 2015, 19 in 2016 and 26 in 2017 -- the most since 2011 when 29 kids were killed in that manner.
At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, 38 children were beaten to death, the highest number of any of the reports. Financial insecurity is one of the leading causes of abuse, child care experts said.
Life of turmoil
AJ Freund was born into chaos.
He was removed from his parents' custody almost immediately after his birth and, according to DCFS records, placed in the care of a cousin for 18 months. The family members who cared for him during those early days said they were cut out of AJ's life more than a year before his April 15 death.
According to police and DCFS reports, AJ and his younger brother lived in squalor. Windows were broken and the floorboards were breaking apart. Police officers who responded to the house in December 2018 said the stench of feces in the boys' bedroom was "overwhelming," but DCFS officials ruled the charges of neglect were "unfounded."
A report of abuse and neglect from March 2018 was also ruled unfounded.
One of AJ's last visits with a DCFS case worker was in December 2018, after a doctor expressed concern about a large bruise on AJ's hip. At one point AJ told the doctor, "Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn't mean to hurt me," according to police reports. But ultimately AJ agreed with his mother's explanation to doctors that the family's dog caused the bruise.
Police believe AJ died on April 15 after being forced into a 20-minute cold shower and beaten on the head as punishment for lying about soiled underwear, according to a search warrant and autopsy report.
It took three days for Andrew Freund to call police to say AJ was missing.
During questioning by the FBI early on April 24, Freund confessed that his son was dead. He blamed Cunningham and told investigators he had buried the boy in a field near Woodstock. He eventually led police to the grave where AJ's body was found nine days after he died.
Teachers can tell
In AJ's obituary, family members said the child "could not wait to start kindergarten in the fall and make new friends." That would have happened Aug. 22 when Crystal Lake Elementary District 47's kindergarten classes began.
At the same time, calls to DCFS would have begun increasing from all over the state. They do at the start of every school year, and this year was no different, DCFS officials said.
"You have people who now have eyes on these kids and are mandated reporters," Strokosch said. "We see a quick uptick at the start of school every year. The vast majority of our calls to the hotline and other reports come from schools."
The number of cases handled by the Child Advocacy Center of McHenry County, where AJ lived, has increased from 172 in 2016 to 347 last year, Executive Director Misty Marinier said. It's unclear whether that means child abuse is occurring more frequently or if it's a sign of greater awareness about abuse and neglect and increased reporting of suspected cases.
"Schools, to me, are only a small piece," said Jennifer Samartano, a prevention specialist at Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. "We all have a role to play."
Children should be taught to tell a trusted adult if someone is hurting them or touches them inappropriately, whether it happens at home, in school, in church or elsewhere, Samartano said. Anyone working with children should be trained to look for warning signs of abuse and neglect.
"Teach them how to pay attention to all children, not just the ones that speak out," she said. "A lot of kids fall through the cracks."
For now, schools are one of the best safety nets for children at risk of abuse or neglect, advocates said.
"The trick is to make sure families have access to child care, especially children in under-resourced communities," said Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. "There's no other time in our lives when our brains grow and develop as rapidly as they do when we're children."
• Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.