Column

Styf: Conviction won't come easy in case against AJ Freund's DCFS caseworkers

Willful and wanton.

They don’t mean much to the average person. They are legalese.

But they also might be the key to the case against former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigator Carlos Acosta and his former supervisor, Andrew Polovin.

The details of the case, where Acosta was the caseworker and Crystal Lake’s AJ Freund ultimately died, are well documented. So is public opinion, which is both Freund’s parents and DCFS should pay for his death.

The evidence shows that 5-year-old AJ was being repeatedly abused, that police, a doctor and Acosta saw strong evidence of that on Dec. 18, 2018; and that AJ ultimately was put back in the custody of his parents. His mother, JoAnn Cunningham, now is serving 35 years in prison for beating him to the brink of death with a showerhead and then leaving him in his bedroom to die alone.

These felony charges against the DCFS caseworkers, filed by the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office, show that that office believes those caseworkers were to blame for that death, too. In December, the DCFS employees should have removed AJ and his brother from the home.

At this point, that is a no-brainer.

If the children had been removed, AJ would be alive.

The difficulty in this case, however, will come back to those terms, willful and wanton.

Defined, willful and wanton mean that the Acosta and his supervisor showed actual or deliberate intent to harm or that they showed an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for AJ’s safety and the safety of others.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally’s team will have to prove that Acosta and Polovin were willful and wanton in knowingly causing or permitting AJ’s life to be endangered and that Acosta and Polovin recklessly performed an act that caused great bodily harm to him.

The second part, the part about showing utter indifference, likely is their best chance to convict.

But that won’t be easy, like it’s easy to say that Acosta has no business remaining on the McHenry County Board.

Clearly, Acosta and Polovin made mistakes. They had a large caseload, more than they should have had. And they were not attentive enough in the details of this case, not unlike the casework done in so many of the DCFS cases in Illinois that have gone wrong over the years.

But these charges set a new precedent.

The difference between this case and that of the social workers for Gabriel Fernandez, featured in a Netflix series, is that those social workers allegedly falsified documents related to the case.

Acosta and Polovin are not accused of that. They are just accused of being bad at their job – an essential job that is the last line of defense for children being abused – and having AJ Freund then die at the hands of at least one of his parents.

Did they screw up this case in a terrible, inexcusable and fatal way?

Yes.

Did they do it in a willful and wanton way?

That will be what a jury, in McHenry County or elsewhere if the case is moved, will have to ultimately decide.

• Northwest Herald Editor and Shaw Media Senior News Editor Jon Styf can be reached at jstyf@shawmedia.com or 815-526-4630.

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