Missed warn­ing signs in boy’s death

Trou­bled his­tory of Crys­tal Lake fam­ily re­veals author­i­ties failed to in­ter­vene

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Christy Gu­towski

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 60pound 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 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-mon­thold Se­maj Crosby, of Joliet Town­ship. Her body was found un­der a couch in April 2017 and her death 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 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.

State over­sight

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 reen­tered 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 well­be­ing 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 cell­phone 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 took 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 and calls for change

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.

“There’s not been any con­sis­tent, sys­temic re­forms. None of this is brain surgery. It’s com­mit­ment and re­sources and con­sis­tent, long-term-minded lead­er­ship.” — Act­ing Cook County Pub­lic Guardian Charles Gol­bert

An­drew “AJ” Fre­und


Crowds gather at a me­mo­rial out­side the Crys­tal Lake home of 5-year-old An­drew “AJ” Fre­und on Wed­nes­day, the day his body was found buried in a wooded area near Wood­stock.

An­drew Fre­und

JoAnn Cun­ning­ham

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