On Halloween 2017, a Crystal Lake resident was greeted by a trick-or-treater who she thought was disguised as a mummy.
The neighbor soon learned that the boy's bandages weren't part of his costume. Rather, they were real dressings covering burns where the child had been scalded with boiling water, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of slain Crystal Lake boy AJ Freund.
The federal suit accuses two Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees of conducting "sham investigations" and falsifying records related to the alleged neglect and abuse AJ experienced at the hands of his parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr.
Had DCFS employees Andrew Polovin and Carlos Acosta not "violated every investigative protocol," AJ might have been spared the "torments of his deranged parents," attorney Peter J. Flowers wrote.
The suit, filed by Chicago law firm Meyers and Flowers, seeks unspecified money damages for the 5-year-old boy's death. Meyers and Flowers represent the State Bank of Geneva, which is the administrator of AJ's estate. The boy's three siblings – his older brother and a younger brother and sister – are beneficiaries of his estate.
“This week AJ should have been celebrating his 6th birthday, instead his family continues to mourn him,” Flowers said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the very people who were mandated to investigate the ongoing reports of abuse and prevent any further harm to this child failed him."
Acosta, a child protection specialist who also serves on the McHenry County Board, and Polovin, his supervisor, are named as defendants in the 36-page civil complaint.
Acosta, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, investigated a Dec. 18, 2018, DCFS hotline call stemming from a large bruise police noticed on AJ's hip and leg. At different times throughout the investigation, AJ attributed the bruise to his dog Lucy, a fall while reaching for a juice box or his mother hitting him with a belt. Although the emergency room doctor who examined AJ, JoEllen Channon, couldn't determine where the bruise came from, Acosta never sought a second medical opinion, according to the lawsuit.
Acosta previously has said he acted within the guidelines assigned to him as a DCFS child protection specialist. He also suggested that some "statutory remedies are necessary," but said he didn't know what specifically needed to be done to improve the agency's function.
DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch also could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit details the events that led up to and followed a handful of DCFS hotline calls throughout the years.
"In 2017 and 2018, police officers, medical personnel and AJ’s neighbors made numerous calls to DCFS’ Child Abuse Hotline … detailing not only AJ’s observable physical injuries, but also the appalling condition of his home at 94 Dole Avenue, which he shared with his younger brother,” Flowers wrote in the civil complaint.
One of those calls came from a worried neighbor, who reported her concerns when she discovered AJ was covered in burns on Halloween 2017.
"When she answered the door, the neighbor assumed that AJ was dressed in a mummy costume, however, AJ’s mother informed her that AJ had accidentally spilled boiling water on his head and face," Flowers wrote in the lawsuit.
Unconvinced by this explanation, the neighbor reported the interaction to DCFS. Upon further investigation, however, attorneys found no existing documents referencing the Halloween 2017 report or any other reports of abuse the neighbor claimed to have made.
Another DCFS hotline call reported an "odd bruise" on AJ's face. DCFS didn't make in-person contact with AJ or his younger brother until about a month later, according to the lawsuit.
Cunningham and Freund each are charged with first-degree murder, in addition to a litany of additional offenses, in connection with the boy's April 15 death.
Police said Freund falsely reported AJ missing April 18, knowing the boy had died days earlier in the family home at 94 Dole Ave., Crystal Lake. Days of the parents' public cries for help finding their son came to a halt April 24, when Freund allegedly led police to the shallow grave where AJ's body was discovered.
The parents reportedly subjected AJ to 20-minute freezing-cold showers and severe beatings as punishment.
AJ’s father told investigators that AJ died as a result of a cold shower punishment, however, the subsequent autopsy of AJ’s body revealed that he most likely died April 15 from multiple blunt force injuries to the head.
Cunningham is expected to make an appearance Thursday morning in McHenry County court on criminal charges. Freund is due back in court Oct. 24.
A separate juvenile hearing is scheduled for Monday regarding the custody of Cunningham's two youngest surviving children.