An Illinois lawmaker says the state’s new child welfare director will face tough questions from a state House panel following the beating death of a 5-year-old boy who had extensive contact with child welfare workers.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz says Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc D. Smith will be questioned Friday in Chicago about the agency’s actions in the case of 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund. He was under the agency’s watch when his badly beaten body was discovered Wednesday in a shallow grave in McHenry County.
His parents have been charged with first-degree murder.
Feigenholtz is on the Appropriations-Human Services Committee, which is scheduled to hear budget requests from several state agencies, including DCFS.
Court documents allege AJ’s parents killed him by beating him and subjecting him to long, cold showers. An autopsy determined the boy died from blunt force trauma to his head and had been struck multiple times.
His plastic-wrapped body was found Wednesday in a shallow grave a few miles from the family’s home in Crystal Lake, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. Child welfare workers had been called repeatedly to the dilapidated and filthy house that stunk of dog feces.
Details of the gruesome death raised the question: Why did those workers not leave with the boy?
“This agency, there is no direction, no mission and it certainly has not been protecting children,” said Feigenholtz, who chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee.
The child’s parents, 36-year-old Joann Cunningham and 60-year-old Andrew Freund Sr., appeared in court Thursday on first-degree murder and other charges. A judge ordered both held in jail on $5 million bail.
Prosecutors read charging documents that alleged the boy was killed three days before his parents reported him missing last Thursday. The details fueled concern about how many other children could face the same kind of danger that AJ did in his short life.
“How many AJ’s are out there right now that we don’t know about?” asked Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, a member of the committee Feigenholtz chairs.
Birth tests revealed the boy had opiates in his bloodstream, the first of many troubling signals about danger to AJ and his little brother that should have been red flags for an agency whose job it is to protect children, Feigenholtz said.
“I got the sense from what I read that the cops were essentially begging (DCFS) to take the child,” said Feigenholtz, referring to the media reports that DCFS in 2018 alone visited the house to investigate allegations of neglect and determined those allegations unfounded. “There were so many calls made, so many signs of trouble and still nothing was done.”
She said the agency’s leadership has been a revolving door, with 13 directors since 2003 — many of them interim.
Another concern stems from the tough financial situation the state has found itself in for years.
“We have huge budgetary problems and this is a byproduct of not taking care of the real issues,” said Rep. Blaine Wilhour, a Beecher City Republican. “These are the core services that are being hollowed out (and) the most vulnerable people are the ones that end up getting hurt.”
Then there are questions about whether it is too difficult for child welfare workers to remove children from their homes, and too easy for parents to have their children returned to them.