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Did DCFS investigator make the right choice with AJ?

Local lawmakers, foster parents weigh in on what went wrong

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services came under fire after the death of 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy AJ Freund.

As residents and politicians questioned why the state agency didn’t remove AJ from his parents’ home, DCFS investigator and McHenry County Board member Carlos Acosta spoke about his interaction with AJ about four months before the boy’s parents allegedly beat, killed and buried the child.

AJ’s father, Andrew Freund Sr., and his mother, JoAnn Cunningham, each are charged with first-degree murder in connection with their son’s April 15 death. The parents reported AJ missing April 18, and police discovered the boy’s body April 24 in a shallow grave near Woodstock.

Acosta was called Dec. 18 to investigate the conditions in the home and a large bruise on AJ’s hip. Acosta expressed that he acted within DCFS guidelines when he and his supervisor ruled the allegations unsubstantiated and returned AJ and his younger brother to their father. Although Acosta didn’t say what specifically needs adjusting within DCFS, he agreed that changes need to be made.

“Do I think statutory remedies are necessary? Yes,” Acosta said during a May 31 interview. “I don’t know where that balance is.”

Acosta’s recounting of the Dec. 18 and 19 investigation sparked ire in some, such as state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who has suggested Acosta resign from his County Board seat.

“I don’t think that this is someone who should be in public service,” McSweeney said. “I think the best path is to resign from public service and move on.”

Others, including McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, called AJ’s death a “collective” failure.

“This isn’t about Carlos Acosta. This is about a broken system,” Franks said. “This is about a system that [DCFS workers] who have 15 children they’re supposed take care of have 40 or 50. That’s what this is.”

Word of AJ Freund’s disappearance and the subsequent news of his death sparked public questioning of DCFS operations and requirements. Improved communication, funding and regulation are some of the changes that local foster parents and legislators have recommended.

Legislators have proposed several bills that would bring some of those changes to fruition, while local foster parents have said community support is lacking.

“If anything comes from this tragedy, it’s an awareness that things have to change, and they are changing,” Franks said.

At a May 31 roundtable discussion, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, heard from McHenry County foster parents, who described their DCFS case workers as well-intentioned, overworked and restricted in their abilities to intervene in certain situations.

“There’s all these agencies that are trying to do something great, but there’s no real communication between them and no mass regulation or standards that allow them to work together,” foster parent Alicia Wehby said.

In response to AJ’s death, Underwood has backed legislation that tries to address a rise in child maltreatment coinciding with the nationwide opioid epidemic.

The federal Stronger Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act would authorize $270 million for the expansion of prevention services to reach more than 3 million children annually, as well as an additional $270 million to support new research and help Illinois’ child protective agencies expand their services, Underwood said.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 1778, would amend the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act to clearly define the roles and expectations of a mandated reporter.

The bill, which passed both houses in the General Assembly on May 31, generally requires mandated reporters complete initial training within three months of their employment and at least every three years afterward so that mandated reporters know the signs of abuse and neglect, as well as what to expect when a DCFS hotline call is made.

McSweeney and state Reps. Allen Skillicorn and Steven Reick each voted in favor of the bill May 31.

“I’m not just going to point my finger only at [Acosta],” McSweeney said. “I’m going to clearly say that a situation turned into a tragedy, and he was part of that, and unfortunately the whole DCFS system has a breakdown.”

The bill’s intention echoes a finding that was identified in an independent review of DCFS’ Intact Family Services. The University of Chicago’s independent policy research center, Chapin Hall, found that DCFS investigators and Intact workers didn’t have a clear understanding of their roles either individually or as a team.

While investigators tend to identify with law enforcement, Intact case managers identify as social workers and mental health professionals, according to the report. Additionally, Intact and investigation teams rarely work in the same offices or for the same supervisors, the report found.

“In both instances where a death occurred during an Intact case, there was no evidence of ongoing collaboration between [DCFS] investigators and Intact case managers,” Chapin Hall policy fellow Dana A. Weiner wrote in the report.

The finding is significant because 80% of Illinois’ DCFS cases are referred to Intact Family Services, or in-home services that link families to community assistance and educational tools.

“A meeting with all of the assigned professionals who were working (or had recently worked) with the family would have been a helpful step toward risk assessment and service planning, but these meetings did not occur nor did any Child and Family Team meetings,” Weiner wrote.

Illinois DCFS acting Director Marc Smith has said the agency is taking steps to adopt Chapin Hall’s recommendations based on the report’s findings.

In reviewing the claims of abuse against AJ’s mother, Acosta said he did consult with another DCFS worker who previously investigated unfounded allegations at the boy’s home. Acosta made a final home visit Dec. 19, by which time reported dog feces and urine on the floor had been cleaned up, he said. The case was closed Jan. 4.

Talk of DCFS’ procedures when determining whether to remove a child from his or her home has dominated the public conversation surrounding the agency’s involvement with AJ. Acosta additionally noted that the agency’s definition of key terms such as “urgent” and “immediate necessity’” varied between jurisdictions.

Even without DCFS caseload pressures and unclear regional standards, however, McHenry County may not be equipped to support the foster families that already exist in the community, Wehby said.

“I think a lot of it is just we’re living in this nice little bubble and everyone assumes we don’t need support and we don’t need foster homes because that doesn’t happen in our community, and that’s just not true,” she said.

Requirements for foster parents to have their children seen by a doctor or dentist within a short period of time can be hard to fulfill because many local providers don’t accept foster children’s insurance, Wehby said.

“No one will take the Medicaid card that the kids are on. You’re stuck here and then you’re traveling ...” Wehby said. “You have a limited amount of time to get them to the doctor and get them to the dentist. ... There’s just a lot of misinformation.”

McHenry County was home to 141 foster children as of May 16, according to a DCFS monthly report. Of those children, 81 were placed with foster families, and 60 were housed with relatives, the report showed.

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