The alleged murder of 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund and arrests of his mother and father in the case are raising questions about Illinois’ child welfare system and what could have been done to remove the young boy from his parents’ custody sooner.
Andrew “Drew” Freund Sr. and Joann Cunningham were charged with first-degree murder after police found AJ buried in a shallow grave in a rural part of Illinois.
Court documents revealed AJ’s parents would force him to stand in a cold shower and beat him. His cause of death was brain damage as a result of “multiple blunt force injuries,” said the McHenry County Coroner’s Office.
The Associated Press reports the head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services will face questions at a state house panel about how the agency handled Freund’s case.
“This agency, there is no direction, no mission, and it certainly has not been protecting children,” state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, tells the AP.
Feigenholtz told AP the agency has had 13 directors since 2003, many who have served on an interim basis.
Police visited AJ’s home 17 times
Chicago station WLS-TV reports police responded to the Freund family home 17 times for allegations of abuse and drug use.
The DCFS’ interactions with Freund’s family date back to October 2013, when AJ was born with opiates in his system. A month later, AJ is taken into protective custody following an investigation, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune reports in June 2015, AJ is returned home. A year later, the case is closed. In 2018, the boy’s family was investigated two more times for allegations of neglect and abuse.
On April 18, Freund was reported missing.
‘He didn’t have a chance from the beginning’
Last December, during one visit to the family home, police reports indicated dog feces and urine were scattered throughout, reports local paper the Daily Herald.
“Upstairs in the room where the boys slept, the window was open, and the smell of feces was overwhelming,” said one report, according to the Herald.
WLS-TV reports Cunningham’s family had gained custody of her older son from another father six years ago and had recently tried to convince her to move out with AJ and a younger brother.
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Jassen Strokosch told CNN the younger brother had been in the home until this week but was living with another family.
WLS reports neighbors had become worried about the kids’ well-being. “I feel like he didn’t have a chance from the beginning,” neighbor Teresa Hay told the station.
Investigation into what went wrong
“The department is committed to conducting a comprehensive review of the entirety of our work with Andrew’s family to understand our shortcomings and to be fully transparent with the public on any steps we are taking to address the issues,” said acting DCFS Director Marc Smith said in a statement.
Feigenholtz told the AP there were enough troubling signals suggesting the boys were in danger.
“I got the sense from what I read that the cops were essentially begging (DCFS) to take the child,” she said to AP.
New information on the case is expected to be revealed Friday, reports CBS Chicago.
AJ’s mom is pregnant. What happens next?
Strokosch told the Chicago Tribune DCFS has a plan in place when Cunningham, who is seven months pregnant, delivers.
The baby would receive the same medical care whether or not Cunningham is incarcerated, said the report. Once the baby is safe to leave the hospital, the agency would take protective custody unless there are plans to place the child with a family member, Strokosch tells the Tribune.