Signs of trouble
The buprenorphine in the couple’s Suboxone prescription blocks cravings and relieves withdrawal symptoms, the doctor stated, but does not provide a “high” no matter how much extra is taken. He said it is recommended many patients take the medication for “several years.”
“As for when your clients can be expected to get off medication, all I can tell you now is that we are not contemplating any sort of recommendation in that regard at this time,” the doctor wrote. “… Rushing that decision will only increase the likelihood of relapse to the use of illicit opioids.”
McIntyre closed AJ’s case on April 21, 2016. The parents’ sobriety dated to December 2013, and records show there were no objections in court from other child welfare professionals, including the state’s attorney’s office and the caseworker.
“Court finds that it is no longer in best interests of the minor or the public that the minor remain a ward of the court,” the court order read. “Wardship vacated. Case closed.”
AJ was 20 months old when he went home to live with his parents full time and about 2½ when the state stopped monitoring his care.
“They were doing good for a long time,” said Lori Hughes, Cunningham’s mother, thumbing through photo albums full of pictures of AJ playing at the park, on his birthday or other family gatherings.
The first indications of a problem came in late summer-early fall 2017, nearly two years after the parents brought him home.
Some signs were small. Cunningham let her cosmetology license lapse that September. One week earlier, Freund approached an officer outside the Crystal Lake Police Department suspecting someone had hacked into his cellphone and asking an officer if he would scan it for surveillance software.
Other signs, in hindsight, were more alarming. The couple did not reenroll AJ in school. He hadn’t been to his doctor for a checkup that year. And Freund lost his longtime house to a tax sale. Though the tax buyer agreed to sell the property back to Freund in exchange for a $100,000 mortgage, to which Cunningham’s name was added, the couple were not making payments.
Around this time, Cunningham’s relatives say, she stopped returning their calls and cut off contact. AJ was about 3.
“JoAnn knew how to separate and divide family,” her mother said. “She could work us all. I think she probably felt insecure that she was going to lose AJ again.”
Janelle Butler, a neighbor of Cunningham and Freund’s, said she first met the family a couple of months earlier on Halloween shortly after she moved in across the street. The parents brought AJ, then 4, and his younger brother over after trick-or-treating hours had ended.
Butler saw that AJ’s head and portions of his face and torso were covered in gauze and said, “Oh, you’re a cute little mummy,” she recalled. But Cunningham told her it wasn’t just for Halloween, that AJ had accidentally burned himself after grabbing a pot of boiling water off the stove. Butler said the gauze partially covered bald patches on his scalp where he lost hair.
She said Cunningham told her they had taken him for medical treatment. The Tribune did not find documentation of a hospital visit for the burn in the voluminous records that document his life.
“It was the first time I ever met them so I took them at their word,” Butler said. “She looked like a young mom, totally fine. And he was just happy to be eating candy.”
That winter, police investigated Cunningham over a fistfight with another woman and for skipping out on a Lake County hotel bill.
Cunningham also “blew off” her oldest son on Christmas Eve 2017, leaving the teen “heartbroken,” according to Hughes.
It’s unclear what kind of relationship Cunningham had with Freund at this point. The two often kept separate bedrooms, various police records show. Family and friends said it seemed they stayed together because of their sons and for financial reasons.
To bring in some money, Freund and Cunningham once again began taking in roommates. One was Daniel Nowicki Jr. He had a history of drug addiction and stints in prison, court records show. Cunningham met him in a treatment program, according to family and friends.
In February 2018, Cunningham called police to report that Nowicki, then 35, was suicidal and missing. He was last seen two days earlier when he said he was taking a train to Chicago, according to a police report.
She told officers he was a heroin addict and depressed over a friend’s recent death. DCFS received a related hotline call at this time, records show, but the agency did not investigate. It was the first of four hotline calls that year connected to Cunningham. Nowicki was soon located unharmed, seeking mental health treatment at a Chicago hospital.
Around 5 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, officers responded to a disturbance at an Algonquin gas station in which the two were overheard yelling at each other while standing by a car.
Cunningham identified Nowicki as her boyfriend to the police officer and complained he was headed to Chicago to buy heroin. She said he had been clean for a year and she was trying to help him but he was too “stubborn” to listen.
Nowicki said that Cunningham “still lives with her ‘baby daddy,’ and he does not want to deal with him,” the police report read. “(He) stated that he just wants to leave and be left alone.”
Nowicki caught a ride with the officer to the police station, leaving Cunningham behind, fuming.
Less than two days later, just before 9 a.m., a police officer found her asleep in her car in Northlake, about 40 miles from her home.
A daily habit
Cunningham wept as she told the officer she did not know where she was or how she got there.
She had gone to a friend’s house the night before, Cunningham said, and someone laced her drink with drugs. She told the officer she “blacked out” afterward.
Cunningham was wearing a hospital bracelet indicating she had received medical treatment the previous day. The officer called for an ambulance, which took her to the emergency room.
When Freund went to the hospital, he brought AJ and the couple’s younger son, then 3. On March 21, a hospital social worker called the DCFS hotline to report AJ had “odd bruising to his face and forehead” and that both boys appeared “very dirty” and that their clothes were on inside out. The children seemed “very guarded,” she said.
The social worker also told DCFS that Cunningham had “fresh track marks up and down her arms, on her feet and neck” and refused to take a drug test.
The hotline launched an investigation, and the assigned DCFS worker tried to set eyes on AJ that same day, following an agency rule to make a “good faith attempt” to see a child within 24 hours. But records show that the investigator, Kathleen Gold, went to the wrong house — a home Cunningham hadn’t lived in since summer 2012.
Eight days later she went to the correct house, but no one answered. She also tried to call several days later and gathered information on the parents’ history with DCFS and law enforcement, records show.
On April 17, Cunningham posted a message on Facebook telling her three sons she loved them, adding: “I hope you will always know that.”
Gold did not see AJ for the first time until April 25 — one month after the hotline call — when the child and his younger brother were outside playing. Cunningham appeared “stable and lucid” and the children “well cared for, clean and appropriately dressed,” the DCFS investigator reported. By then, AJ’s bruises were gone.
Three weeks later — nearly two months after the hotline call — Gold set foot inside the house for the first time on May 17 for a meeting with both parents and their two sons. Cunningham admitted to Gold that after more than four years of sobriety, she had relapsed on heroin before Northlake police found her in her car in March.
The DCFS investigator found that Cunningham completed a five-day detox program afterward and was continuing treatment through methadone, counseling and random drug screens. The home appeared kept up, and the boys were clean and without signs of mistreatment, according to Gold’s notes.
She viewed the dad, Freund, as a “protective factor for the children.” He assured Gold “he would not let anything happen to the boys,” records show. At the time, Freund had a job providing inhouse legal services for a Riverside company, and he was caring for the kids when their mother relapsed.
A day after her meeting with the parents, Gold consulted with supervisor Andrew Polovin and determined the allegations were unfounded. There is no indication in the records that Gold asked about AJ’s facial bruises.
Cunningham’s downward spiral continued. That July, she was charged with battery for allegedly scratching a nurse while being treated for three days at a Chicago hospital psychiatric unit.
She had been admitted for depression and suicidal thoughts, with a plan to “walk in front of a bus,” according to documents reviewed by the Tribune.
The records said Cunningham reported she was in the city to buy drugs. Exhibiting signs of opioid withdrawal, she said she had relapsed a few months earlier, developing a daily habit of 10 to 15 bags of heroin, costing about $100 daily by her estimation.
Later that same month, at a different Chicago hospital, she again spoke of her desire to commit suicide, this time by intentionally overdosing on heroin, records said. It’s unclear how long she received treatment at the hospital, but she was diagnosed with depression, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, the documents said.
In August 2018, as Crystal Lake police investigated a complaint from Nowicki about missing medication, officers described Cunningham as “on some sort of narcotic medication” and having “no idea” what occurred much of the night before.
In September, in a third 2018 hotline call, someone called for a well-being check on the boys because the house was dark and appeared to have been without power for weeks. Outside, the grass was overgrown and the paint peeling. Cunningham admitted the power had been disconnected and said she was trying to find a new place to live, staying at hotels or elsewhere with her
Daniel Nowicki Jr., father of Cunningham’s youngest child, died Sept. 29.
Cunningham gave birth to her fourth child, a girl, in May.