Days before Christmas, a McHenry County doctor asked 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund how he got a large bruise on his right hip.
The boy and his mother had suggested the family dog, a 60-pound boxer named Lucy, caused the injury when the pooch jumped on him. The doctor, suspicious of the explanation but unable to pinpoint a cause after examining the child, took AJ aside and asked him what had happened.
“Maybe someone hit me with a belt,” the child said, according to newly released records. “Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”
Despite the boy’s alarming words, state child welfare officials investigating the Dec. 18, 2018, hotline complaint from police about the bruise determined there wasn’t credible evidence to support taking AJ into protective custody. Nine months earlier, a similar hotline complaint about the boy’s bruising also was deemed unfounded.
Tragically, the Crystal Lake boy was fatally beaten April 15 — three days before his father called 911 to report him missing, sparking an exhaustive search effort that ended with the discovery of the child’s body in a shallow grave about 7 miles from his home.
As JoAnn Cunningham, 36, and Andrew Freund, 60, face murder charges in the death of their son, a Tribune review of the family’s troubled history in court records, police reports and state child welfare documents reveals a series of missed opportunities for authorities to have intervened.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which on Friday revealed new details about the case, has limited legal authority to remove a child from a parent’s custody and does so only if it finds an “imminent and immediate” risk of harm. Even its harshest critics concede that not all deaths are preventable, as the overburdened state agency is tasked with the difficult job of trying to predict future human behavior.
Still, the Tribune found that DCFS missed telltale signs of trouble despite repeated hotline calls and police reports that documented squalid living conditions, substance abuse, domestic violence, suspicious bruises and, at times, uncooperative parents.
Investigators with DCFS have had repeated contact with the family since even before AJ was born with opiates and other drugs in his system.
Later there were at least three hotline calls alleging abuse or neglect in the final 13 months of the boy’s life. Two resulted in DCFS investigations. The agency declined to look into one hotline complaint that came in between the other two last year about a lack of working utilities in the home.
In one of the two that resulted in agency investigations, records show, a DCFS worker failed to see AJ until about five weeks after the hotline call. Despite the family’s troubled history and his alarming remarks to the doctor, the investigator in the subsequent case closed it in just over two weeks. The investigator did not seek other medical opinions to determine the cause of AJ’s bruise, despite having access to other child abuse experts in the area, records show.
DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith called AJ’s death heartbreaking and said his team is conducting a comprehensive review of its “shortcomings” in the case and would take steps to address those issues. The agency has placed a worker and supervisor involved in AJ’s case on administrative duty until the internal probe is concluded.
It’s the latest tragedy for a beleaguered state agency where stability has proved elusive for years amid highly publicized deaths of children in state care, management upheaval and scandal. Smith was appointed just weeks ago, after numerous directors and acting directors have cycled through the agency since 2011.
At a budget hearing Friday in Chicago, state lawmakers pressed DCFS officials to explain some of the agency’s failings in AJ’s case and questioned the long-standing priority of family reunification.
“If we’re not going to create a stronger system for these families, we really need to revisit removing some of these kids before they get murdered by their parents,” said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat.
Acting Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, a child welfare watchdog, noted that AJ’s death comes near the second anniversary of that of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, of Joliet Township. Her body was found underneath a couch in late April 2017 and her death was deemed a homicide by asphyxia.
In response, DCFS pledged various changes, including to improve case reviews for children whose families, like Semaj’s and AJ’s, had multiple investigations. Golbert said promises for reform have proved fleeting.
“There’s not been any consistent, systemic reforms,” he said. “None of this is brain surgery. It’s commitment and resources and consistent, long-term-minded leadership.”
Early warning signs
The child welfare agency first became involved in AJ’s life in October 2013, when authorities said he was born with drugs in his system. DCFS took protective custody, placing him with a cousin in foster care. But Cunningham, his mother, already was well known to the agency.
DCFS revealed Friday that she was a licensed foster parent who had faced two complaints in 2012 that the agency investigated. Both were deemed unfounded. The first alleged that she provided inadequate supervision to the foster child because of her abuse of prescription drugs. The later investigation involved an older son — her only child at the time — and also alleged that Cunningham was neglectful because of drugs and mental health issues.
At about that time, Cunningham was battling her mother in McHenry County Circuit Court over custody of the older son, who then was 12. The boy’s grandmother, Lorelei Hughes, accused her daughter of being an unfit parent who was frequently under the influence of prescription medication and living in squalor with Andrew Freund, her divorce attorney and father to AJ.
The older boy, born when Cunningham was 17, had been living mostly with Hughes since August 2012. Cunningham tried to regain custody in January 2013, but she was denied after her mother in court filings described the boy’s filthy living conditions. When Hughes would drop the boy off at the home after a visit, she’d find and begin cleaning floors covered in dog feces and piles of cat urine-soaked laundry in the home, which often was without heat or running water, according to records.
The court filings concerning custody of the oldest boy also describe Cunningham’s relationship with Andrew Freund as violent, with Cunningham threatening him with a knife, and Freund pushing her down the stairs.
Freund also would “frequently put on his army uniform and walked around the house with a gun in his hand,” scaring the 12-year-old boy, records state. The boy — AJ’s older brother — also went hungry for days at a time with limited food in the house, according to the court filing.
In 2015, the court awarded Cunningham limited visitation with the boy, who was then 15, after she petitioned the court — represented by Freund — citing her sobriety for more than a year after attending an outpatient drug rehabilitation program. But the court denied the mother’s efforts to regain custody of her oldest son.
It’s unclear whether DCFS was involved or reviewed allegations contained in the court case, which foreshadowed many of the troubling conditions that would plague AJ’s short life.
Though Cunningham had only limited visitation in 2015 with her older son, a McHenry County judge returned custody of AJ to her that June after he spent about 19 months in foster care with an adult cousin.
By then, both parents had completed drug treatment, parenting classes and counseling, state records showed. A private agency called Youth Service Bureau of Illinois hired by DCFS to monitor the family after AJ went home made 26 visits, many unannounced, from that June through April 2016 before the state’s oversight of AJ’s case was officially closed. The worker never reported signs of abuse or neglect, DCFS officials said.
But DCFS investigators returned twice in 2018 to investigate separate allegations of potential harm, both of which were deemed unfounded, the agency said. A Tribune review of the agency’s handling of those hotline calls revealed potential missteps.
On March 21, 2018, a hospital social worker called the DCFS hotline to report that AJ had “odd bruising on his face,” the state agency said. Both AJ and his younger brother, now 4, were wearing clothes that were inside out, according to a Tribune source who reviewed the child welfare records. The incident began after police found Cunningham asleep in her car, her arms, neck and feet covered in “fresh track marks” from needles, according to the source and records.
It’s unclear whether the boys were in the car with Cunningham at the time, but their father was allowed to take them home. Records show DCFS responded to the hospital’s complaint that same day, but the investigator was unable to see AJ at the home. The investigator tried again two more times in March and early April to make contact with the children but again was unable to see AJ until April 25 — about five weeks after the hotline call about the bruising — when the child and his younger brother were outside playing.
By then, the boy’s bruises were not visible. The investigator closed the report as unfounded on May 18. DCFS said the investigator confirmed the mother had re-entered substance abuse treatment. The home appeared tidy and the boys were clean and without signs of mistreatment, the agency reported.
But DCFS investigators are required to make a “good faith attempt” to see a child within 24 hours. If an adult refuses access or if the child cannot be located in cases involving serious risk or harm, the investigator is expected to keep returning daily until the child is seen.
Investigators must take whatever steps are necessary, including going to police, relatives, friends and schools, and searching post office, utility and government databases.
Months later, on Sept. 20, 2018, a neighbor had called for a well-being check on the house because it allegedly had been without power for weeks and appeared run-down. A woman at the house would not allow police inside, but an officer saw the two boys living at the house and said they appeared to be “healthy and happy.”
Police said they referred the case to DCFS but were told that a home having a power outage was not grounds for a DCFS investigation.
A third hotline call last year revolved around the Dec. 18 doctor’s visit in which the family dog was blamed for causing a large bruise to AJ’s right hip.
Cunningham prompted the investigation after she called police earlier that day, accusing a boyfriend of stealing her cellular phone and prescription medications. The mother called from a Taco Bell parking lot, her two kids seated in the car. Police checked out the home while investigating her complaint.
A police report into the incident offered a glimpse inside the house at that time, with police describing it as “dirty, cluttered and in disrepair.” Parts of the floor in the kitchen had only a subflooring that was broken and jagged. The ceiling appeared to have water damage and was peeling.
There were piles of clothes covering the dining room, a door appeared to be covered in a brown substance and the boys’ room had an “overwhelming” smell of feces. The police officer advised her sergeant of her “concern for the children’s well-being” and temporarily transported them to the police station after arresting Cunningham for driving on a suspended license.
At the station, police asked her about the bruise on AJ’s hip. Both the mother and the boy said he must have been bruised when pawed by their brown boxer, Lucy, according to records.
State law requires police, among other professionals, to call DCFS when they have “reasonable cause” to suspect a minor is being abused or neglected. Police called the hotline, and DCFS quickly responded. Cunningham said the mess in her home was due in part to remodeling, according to DCFS. The agency said its investigator was told the same explanation for the bruise.
The mother, after being released from police custody, took AJ to see a doctor as DCFS had instructed her. The doctor, though, was unable to determine the cause of the bruise. She said it could be due to a dog, a belt or even a football. That next day, the investigator made an unannounced home visit and found that the squalid conditions described by police had improved, DCFS said.
On Jan. 4, after the DCFS investigator also compared notes with another agency worker involved in the earlier hotline investigation, the agency again determined the complaint to be unfounded and closed the case.
But records show that second investigator made little other effort despite the family’s troubled history and the boy’s statement to the doctor that “maybe” his mother had hit him. Though not required, the investigator could have sought out the expert opinion of a pediatric doctor board-certified in child abuse injuries. There are only a handful of such doctors statewide.
For most of northern Illinois outside Cook County, including McHenry County, that job falls to MERIT, the Medical Evaluation & Response Initiative Team formed in 2008 as a collaboration of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford and DCFS.
Dr. Ray Davis, a Rockford pediatrician who also works as MERIT’s medical director, said DCFS investigators are encouraged but not mandated to seek out such child abuse expertise. He said such consultations typically are for more serious injuries than bruising but that, had he been called, he would have assisted.
He cited a high turnover rate with DCFS investigators and said more funding is needed to better train and pay them.
Dr. Jill Glick, a pediatrician and medical director of Child Advocacy and Protective Services at Comer Children’s Hospital, has long lobbied for regional multidisciplinary teams similar to MERIT and the one she runs in Cook County to investigate child abuse and neglect across the state.
Consisting of members from DCFS, medical and advocacy centers, and police and state’s attorney’s offices, teams would be trained together and work as units rather than collections of professionals from different organizations.
She agreed there were plenty of warning signs in AJ’s case.
“I always remind people that it was the parent — not DCFS — that killed the child,” Glick said, speaking generally about cases in which parents are convicted of killing a child. “They don’t have a crystal ball, but there are things we can do when we review these cases that can objectively lead us to change. Was there something missed? Was there something better that could have been done?”
She continued, “The answer is there. I’ve always preached that we have to medicalize DCFS with intensive on-site training and have supervisors who know what they’re doing (in cases involving serious injury). You have to look at the age of the child, the location of the bruises and the history of the parents. This is all about critical thinking, and these kind of cases take a lot of time and expertise.”
Questions abound, calls for change persist
The DCFS inspector general’s office is investigating the agency’s handling of AJ’s case.
The inspector general, by law, reviews all cases of child death and serious injury when the family was involved in the system within the last year of the minor’s life.
“We have done a preliminary review of the facts of this case and the record, and we are opening this for a full investigation,” said DCFS Acting Inspector General Meryl Paniak, who declined further comment.
The inspector general launched its probe even before AJ’s body was found based on a complaint from Illinois’ chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America.
James McIntyre, the group’s co-founder and board president, urged DCFS to put into place new policies to review those investigations that are deemed unfounded and those hotline calls that do not result in an investigation. He also called on the governor’s office to act.
“This family was in constant crisis,” McIntyre said, “however even after a number of police calls and investigations, Illinois has failed to protect AJ.”
Both parents, who besides facing first-degree murder charges also are accused of aggravated battery, domestic battery and failure to report a child’s death, are due back in court Monday. One of the battery-related charges against Cunningham alleges she also had struck AJ on March 4, indicating that the abuse was ongoing for at least a month prior to his death.
DCFS placed their youngest son, 4, in protective custody with a relative under a safety plan after AJ was reported missing.
Authorities confirmed Cunningham is seven months pregnant with her fourth child.