It’s time to stop pre­serv­ing abu­sive homes

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - Heidi Stevens [email protected]­ Twit­ter @hei­dis­tevens13

Bal­anc­ing Act

Randy Bur­ton has been fol­low­ing the ex­cru­ci­at­ing saga of AJ Fre­und from his home state of Texas.

Bur­ton is a former as­sis­tant district at­tor­ney in Har­ris County. He founded the non­profit Jus­tice for Chil­dren in 1987 af­ter prose­cut­ing child abuse cases and watch­ing, time and again, chil­dren be­ing re­turned to vi­o­lent homes.

“The sys­tem fails sys­tem­at­i­cally,” he told me Thurs­day, the day af­ter 5-year-old AJ’s body was found buried in a shal­low grave. AJ’s par­ents, JoAnn Cun­ning­ham, 36, and An­drew Fre­und, 60, face mur­der charges in his death.

I called Bur­ton be­cause I’ve fol­lowed his work for years. He’s a pro­lific ad­vo­cate for res­cu­ing and pro­tect­ing chil­dren from abuse. His or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­vides free guid­ance and le­gal ser­vices to adults who fear a child is be­ing al­lowed to re­main in an abu­sive home. Some­times that adult is a neigh­bor, some­times it’s a teacher, some­times it’s a par­ent try­ing to pro­tect his or her own child from an­other par­ent or rel­a­tive.

I called him be­cause I’m hun­gry for fresh ideas. I’m hun­gry for some­thing other than af­ter-the-fact checks and bal­ances on a bu­reau­cratic sys­tem tasked with an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult job: pro­tect­ing a child from mon­sters. Mon­sters who are, all too of­ten, that child’s fam­ily. Mon­sters whom that child loves.

Sto­ries like AJ’s defy our un­der­stand­ing of fam­ily. They defy our un­der­stand­ing of hu­man­ity. “The litany of hor­ri­ble things done to small chil­dren,” Bur­ton said, “it’s never-end­ing.”

In­ves­ti­ga­tors with DCFS had con­tact with AJ’s fam­ily for years, even be­fore the boy was born with drugs in his sys­tem. The DCFS in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the agency’s han­dling of AJ’s case, the Tri­bune re­ported Fri­day, which it’s man­dated to do in all cases of child death and in­jury when the fam­ily was in­volved with DCFS within the last year of the mi­nor’s life.

Bur­ton’s not im­pressed. Or hope­ful. It’s not enough. He pushes for whole­sale changes in the way child pro­tec­tive ser­vice agen­cies ap­proach their en­tire rea­son for be­ing. He ad­vo­cates for a shift away from the long­time goal of keep­ing fam­i­lies to­gether. The no­tion that it’s more harm­ful to re­move a child from a fam­ily than to leave a child in an abu­sive home, he says, is out­dated and sci­en­tif­i­cally un­proven. A child’s safety has to be paramount.

“The fact that chil­dren love their par­ents un­con­di­tion­ally does not mean that’s an ex­cuse to leave them in a home where their bones are be­ing bro­ken or they’re be­ing starved or they’re be­ing raped,” Bur­ton said. “To me, it’s just be­yond com­pre­hen­sion how one could jus­tify leav­ing a child in an en­vi­ron­ment like AJ’s.”

In 1980, the fed­eral Adop­tion As­sis­tance and Child Wel­fare Act was passed, re­quir­ing child pro­tec­tive ser­vices agen­cies to avoid un­nec­es­sary re­moval of chil­dren from their homes. All too of­ten, Bur­ton said, that back­fires. “As we can see in this case in­volv­ing AJ, case­work­ers make pre­pos­ter­ous de­ci­sions and bend over back­wards to leave the child in the home, un­der this fam­ily preser­va­tion idea.”

Child abuse, by def­i­ni­tion, is a crime. Bur­ton ar­gues that law en­force­ment should have the pri­mary author­ity for re­ceiv­ing and in­ves­ti­gat­ing child abuse com­plaints. He would like to see fed­eral leg­is­la­tion that strength­ens child abuse and ne­glect laws. He’d like to see chil­dren who are vic­tims of crimes treated like all other vic­tims of crimes.

“If I’m an adult and I’ve been raped, I don’t call adult pro­tec­tive ser­vices,” he said. “I call the po­lice. And they mea­sure their re­sponse time in min­utes, not days.”

His po­si­tion, he said, is based on decades of watch­ing thou­sands of chil­dren be mur­dered by their fam­ily mem­bers or guardians.

“Peo­ple will say it’s easy to sec­ond-guess the sit­u­a­tion and look back at what should have been done in this case or that case,” Bur­ton said. “I’ve got sev­eral hun­dred boxes of cases, field stud­ies, sto­ries, in­ves­ti­ga­tions, news­pa­per se­ries from every ma­jor city — At­lanta, Mi­ami, Chicago, Houston — that have in­formed my opin­ion. I don’t say these things lightly.

“I don’t want to break up fam­i­lies,” he con­tin­ued. “I know how im­por­tant a fam­ily is and I know all fam­i­lies have stresses and there are times when things are bet­ter than other times. But when you look at the files I’ve looked at, when you read these in­ves­ti­ga­tions, when you read what hap­pens to these chil­dren, there just sim­ply is no ex­cuse for leav­ing them in their homes.”

A Tri­bune in­ves­ti­ga­tion of DCFS files and po­lice re­ports shows the agency found am­ple ev­i­dence of squalid liv­ing con­di­tions in AJ’s home: an “over­whelm­ing” smell of fe­ces, no power for weeks, dam­aged floors and ceil­ings.

AJ of­ten had bruises. A few days be­fore Christ­mas, my col­league Christy Gu­towski re­ports, AJ told a doc­tor who asked about a bruise on his hip, “Maybe some­one hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

In 2016, an es­ti­mated 1,750 chil­dren died of abuse and ne­glect in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

I asked Bur­ton if crit­ics ar­gue that re­mov­ing chil­dren from abu­sive homes sim­ply puts them in harm’s way in a dif­fer­ent home.

“I know fos­ter care has had its own set of prob­lems,” he said. “But there are also many great fos­ter fam­i­lies out there. Are there crappy ones? Yes. And part of the prob­lem is they’re not mon­i­tored the way they should be. I un­der­stand the res­ig­na­tion. But to me, any re­moval is bet­ter than leav­ing some­one like AJ in that home. And, of course, it’s not just AJ. It’s thou­sands of chil­dren.”

An agency tasked with pre­serv­ing and re­uni­fy­ing fam­i­lies, he said, can’t pos­si­bly in­ves­ti­gate fam­i­lies ef­fec­tively. “It’s a pro­fes­sional schizophre­nia,” he said. “They’re told to pro­tect chil­dren and pre­serve fam­i­lies. When you’re deal­ing with felony crimes com­mit­ted against chil­dren, you can­not sat­isfy both of those. You have to pro­tect the child first. You don’t have a choice, in my opin­ion, but to re­move the child when there’s ev­i­dence of an arguable crime.”

He’s tired of wait­ing for change. “I’ve talked about this fam­ily preser­va­tion is­sue till I’m blue in the face. I’ve talked about it on ‘20/20’ and ‘Good Morn­ing Amer­ica’ and a BBC se­ries called ‘Amer­ica’s Child Death Shame.’ I’ve writ­ten about it ex­ten­sively. When­ever I get a chance, I try to re­mind peo­ple that there are so­lu­tions.”

His so­lu­tions are con­tro­ver­sial. Crit­ics will find all sort of rea­sons to dis­miss them out of hand.

But can we keep pre­tend­ing the cur­rent sys­tem is enough? When we look at photos of AJ and rec­on­cile that smile with the fate he met? When we know he died close to the sec­ond an­niver­sary of the death of Se­maj Crosby, the Joliet Town­ship tod­dler found un­der a couch, whose death was ruled homi­cide by as­phyxia? When the num­ber of chil­dren killed by abuse na­tion­ally creeps to­ward 2,000 a year?

I can’t.

“If we have suf­fi­cient, ad­mis­si­ble ev­i­dence, we need to ag­gres­sively in­ter­vene,” Bur­ton said. “That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean you won’t ever re­unite. That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean you’re go­ing to have parental rights ter­mi­nated. But AJ lived in a dan­ger­ous home. And I have no doubt in my mind that lit­tle boy could’ve been saved.”

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