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Illinois pledges child-welfare changes following boy’s death

Andrew "AJ" Freund, JoAnn Cunningham, Andrew Freund Sr.

Andrew "AJ" Freund, JoAnn Cunningham, Andrew Freund Sr.

CHICAGO — Officials with Illinois’ child-welfare agency said Friday they are reviewing cases involving the state’s youngest children in which caseworkers found insufficient evidence of abuse or neglect, after the beating death of a 5-year-old boy with a long history of contact with the agency.

The Department of Children and Family Services erred by overlooking a doctor’s report in which Andrew “AJ” Freund reported being hit with a belt, the officials told a legislative panel. AJ’s body, wrapped in plastic, was discovered Wednesday in a shallow grave in suburban Chicago.

AJ is the third child under the agency’s watch to die since February. Newly appointed acting director Marc D. Smith told the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee that “we are implementing changes as we go” but want to avoid knee-jerk reactions.

“We want to make sure that the information that our front-line staff are receiving helps them think about every decision that they make when deciding how to manage the needs of our families,” he said.

AJ’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., have been charged with murder and other crimes. Prosecutors allege they forced the boy to stand in a cold shower while they beat him. Family interaction with DCFS dates to 2012, before the birth of AJ and a younger brother, when Cunningham was a foster parent for DCFS. Trouble followed AJ from the start; he was born with opiates in his system.

A caseworker last visited the home in December, but bruising on AJ was attributed to the family dog. The case was closed in January despite a note in his file that indicated a “doctor was concerned because Andrew said, ‘Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.'”

“That piece was missed,” Anne Gold, DCFS associate deputy for child protection, acknowledged under questioning. A child-abuse expert should have been consulted among other established steps, she said.

The caseworker and supervisor responsible for AJ’s case have been transferred to administrative duty with no work on family cases while the review continues, Smith said. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker enlisted research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to issue a report by next month on what Pritzker called “actionable recommendations” for the agency.

Gold did not specify a time frame for reviewing all “unfounded” allegations of abuse and neglect involving children three and younger. Rep. Anna Moeller, a Democrat from Elgin, said it should involve older kids too, particularly because AJ was 5.

“This mother has a history of opioid abuse This child is at risk already. I don’t understand how DCFS can allow that situation to stay the same when your caseworkers know that history,” Moeller said. “I would strongly encourage that the department to look at that process and make significant changes, because it’s very clear that DCFS should have done so much more to ensure that this child was safe.”

Smith noted he has requested 126 added positions in the budget year that begins July 1. Gold said a typical DCFS staff member has a workload of 12 to 15 cases. She did not know how that compares nationally, and accurate comparisons are elusive.

Problems in Illinois’ child welfare system date back decades. The system saw big improvements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after a federal consent decree in response to a 1988 American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois lawsuit. But with frequent turnover among department leadership and funding cuts, DCFS “has sunk back into being completely broken,” said Benjamin Wolf, ACLU Illinois legal director.

The decree set new monthly cases at approximately 12. A political battle that led to a two-year budget stalemate from 2015 to 2017 sent caseloads as high as 30, said Wolf, who contended former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration counted interns and employees on leave in order to make caseloads look lower. The ACLU went back to court last year and a special master was appointed to oversee DCFS compliance.

DCFS has released a detailed timeline of its interactions with AJ’s family but on Friday denied a Freedom of Information Act request from The Associated Press for all written records in the case since 2013. The agency explained such records may only be disclosed to the subject of a report or his or her representative or anyone authorized under state law to view them.

Specific information, such as names, status of an investigation, and protective actions taken, may be released under certain circumstances, including the arrest of a report’s subject or the death of the named child, two conditions met in this case..

Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and expert on child-welfare issues, said the state is doing a “lousy job” at recruiting foster parents to care for abused children removed from their biological homes. She blamed it in part on too great a focus on what otherwise is a laudable goal of reuniting biological families when possible. But social services for troubled families are lacking, she said.

“There are circumstances that we need to revisit with these very complex cases,” Feigenholtz said. “If we’re not going to create a stronger system for these families, we have really got to revisit removing some of these kids before they get murdered by their parents.”

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