As details emerge about the death of a 5-year-old boy whose disappearance captured the attention of the nation, there is escalating scrutiny of an Illinois agency already being reviewed because of recent deaths of two other children.
The Associated Press reported that court documents allege Andrew “AJ” Freund’s parents killed him by beating him and subjecting him to long, cold showers. An autopsy determined the boy died from blunt force trauma to his head. He had been struck multiple times. The boy’s plastic-wrapped body was found last Wednesday in a shallow grave a few miles from the family’s home in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
The child’s parents, 36-yer-old Joann Cunningham and 60-year-old Andrew Freund Sr., appeared in court Thursday on first-degree murder and other charges. A judge ordered both held on $5 million bonds.
Child welfare workers had been called repeatedly to the dilapidated and filthy house that reportedly stunk of dog feces.
In court Thursday, prosecutors read charging documents that alleged the boy was killed three days before his parents reported him missing. The details raised in those charging documents fueled concern about how many other children could face the same kind of danger that AJ did.
“How many AJs are out there right now that we don’t know about?” asked Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat and member of the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee chaired by state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, also a Chicago Democrat.
Referring to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Feigenholtz said, “This agency, there is no direction, no mission and it certainly has not been protecting children.”
Feigenholtz said birth tests revealed the boy had opiates in his blood stream, a finding that should have been a red flag for an agency whose job it is to protect children.
Referring to media reports that DCFS visited the house repeatedly in 2018 to investigation allegation of neglect which they determined to be unfounded, Feigenholtz said, “There were so many calls made, so many signs of trouble and still nothing was done.”
There are questions about whether it is too difficult for child welfare workers in Illinois to remove children from their homes and too easy for parents to have their children returned to them.
Two recent Illinois cases, both involving the deaths of 2-year-olds, prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to order an independent review of the DCFS, which has had 13 directors since 2003.
Illinois, according to a University of Chicago study, has the lowest foster care entry rate in the nation. Feigenholtz said lawmakers have to answer the question of whether the threshold for child removal is too high or whether the workers are “not aware of (the regulation) or are poorly trained.”
“It has to be fixed,” she said. It would be difficult to find anyone who disagrees.