'AJ's Law' would create new agency to take over for DCFS in McHenry County
State Rep. Steve Reick on Friday announced legislation to be known as AJ's Law that would create a pilot McHenry County Children and Family Services Agency.
The Woodstock Republican said the legislation would replace Illinois Department of Children and Family Services operations in McHenry County. It's named for AJ Freund, the 5-year old Crystal Lake boy who was beaten to death in April 2019.
For nine months, Reick said, he has been part of a bipartisan legislative working group established to examine DCFS operations.
"DCFS is an agency on life support and it needs systemic change," he said at a news conference in Woodstock. Internal efforts to address shortcomings at DCFS haven't worked, he added.
As proposed, the county agency would operate for five years but could be curtailed sooner. It would have "all the powers and duties" of DCFS. The bill allows for hiring an executive director, with county board consent, and employees would be county employees.
Reick said the local agency would be funded by state appropriations for DCFS, not local taxes.
"The goal of this legislation is to create a framework which will make this new county agency a model for the rest of the state," he said. "Under the jurisdiction of local government, the purpose of this agency is to provide more responsive, effective and efficient child welfare services to the people of this community."
He said DCFS has shortcomings, particularly with investigative resources in McHenry County, and a local agency could be more responsive and effective.
"I realize that changing an entire agency from a one-size fits all model to one where the buck stops at the county line will be a heavy lift but it has to be done," Reick said.
"A little boy resigned to an anonymous grave along a back road deserves nothing less from us."
Reick said he expects "pretty strong bipartisan support" from legislators.
However, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is said to be "skeptical" of the effort. Pritzker "has prioritized rebuilding DCFS statewide, with significant investments in staffing and reform," said press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh.
"The Governor will continue to work with lawmakers who are dedicated to ensuring our state's most vulnerable children are protected, but the administration is skeptical that this effort would have the intended effect of improving services," Abudayyeh added.
During his news conference, Reick said he found Pritzker to be approachable.
"He may not change his mind but at least he's willing to listen to you. And to be honest, that is huge."
Reick said he sent 113 emails Friday seeking legislative support. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin agreed to be chief co-sponsor, according to Reick.
AJ's parents, JoAnn Cunningham, 36, and Andrew Freund Sr., 61, were charged with first-degree murder and other crimes after his body was found in a shallow grave in a semirural area near Woodstock six days after he was reported missing.
Both pleaded not guilty but Cunningham on Dec. 5 changed her plea to guilty to one charge of first-degree murder. She is awaiting sentencing and faces up to 60 years in prison.
Freund next scheduled court appearance is Feb. 27. Both remain jailed on $5 million bail each.