Report says AJ's death 'emblematic' of DCFS failures
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services' watchdog called 5-year-old AJ Freund's murder in April "emblematic of DCFS's failure to look beyond the current crisis to consider the entire history of the family" in her annual report to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Acting DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak wrote, "I am disheartened that many of the problems I identify here have been identified before, both by me and my predecessor."
She compared AJ's death to the murder of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace in 1993, which spurred the state to create the department's inspector general's office.
"We, Illinois, must do better," she wrote. "We need to do more to support families early on, before they get into deep trouble. But when families are broken, we need to act decisively to protect children."
AJ's mother, JoAnn Cunningham, pleaded guilty to his murder last month and faces a maximum 60-year sentence. His father, Andrew Freund Sr., is awaiting trial.
AJ was reported missing in April, but a week later investigators recovered his remains from a shallow grave in a field near Woodstock where, authorities say, his father admitted he'd buried the boy. Investigators recovered several videos Cunningham had deleted from her cellphone showing AJ in the aftermath of beatings.
Freund told investigators that the night AJ died, Cunningham had forced the boy to endure a lengthy cold shower, then beat him about the head for lying about soiled underwear.
Paniak noted warning signs were ignored in AJ's case that could have changed the trajectory of his fate.
"Investigators ignored the parents' long history of addiction, the mother's recent relapse, and the parents' isolation of the children from caring relatives and day care providers," Paniak wrote.
A Daily Herald analysis of child deaths between 2006 and 2017 revealed 87% of the 302 children in Illinois who were beaten to death, like AJ, were under the required age for school. Many child care experts believe access to child care services for younger children would significantly decrease the risk of beating deaths for young children.
The inspector general's office investigated 123 child deaths in 2019, according to the report. The investigations are required if a child who has died has had contact with DCFS in the year before their death. Last year, 24 children who had prior contact with DCFS were murdered. Nine of those children were beaten to death.
"The 123 death cases also demonstrate that when families are too broken to quickly repair, protecting children must be DCFS's first priority," Paniak wrote.
DCFS has not completed its internal investigation into AJ's death. Two caseworkers and a supervisor involved in his case no longer work for the agency and have been sued by the boy's estate in federal court, alleging the trio falsified records and neglected their responsibilities.
The inspector general's report recommends a litany of policy changes and training requirements. It also suggests consistent, rapid and more thorough communication between caseworkers and supervisors involving intact family services cases like AJ was part of. It also urges the state to invest in manpower for the agency to ensure caseworkers and supervisors aren't overwhelmed by caseloads, which has been a long-standing concern within the department.