His death could have been avoided, apparently, but no one took the warning signs seriously. 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund was reported missing on April 18. A few days later, he was found dead and buried in a shallow grave about 7 miles from his home in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

As reported by Chicago Tribune, it was discovered during the investigation after his death that there had been several reports against his drug-abusing parents [1]. Unfortunately, none of them had been found “imminent and immediate” enough to warrant rescuing the boy and his 4-year-old younger brother.

36-year-old JoAnn Cunningham and 60-year-old Andrew Freund, AJ’s parents are being charged with his murder. The child, who died of head injuries after receiving a massive beating, had been born with opiates in his system, a reflection of his mother’s lifestyle.

 According to the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham is currently pregnant and once lost custody of her first son to her mother, Lorelei Hughes, who was appalled by the squalor in which her daughter as raising the kid. In 2012, when McHenry was her only child and barely 12 years old, Lorelei would visit and take out time to clean the filth in which the boy and his mother lived. In August of the same year, she won custody of the child and Cunningham was only allowed limited visitation.

AJ’s tragic life

Immediately after he was born in 2013, he was removed from his mother’s care and placed in foster care with an adult cousin. In 2015, after citing the fact that she had been sober for nearly a year, custody of AJ was returned to Cunningham on the condition that a Youth Service Bureau worker would frequently visit them. The visitation stopped in 2016 after the worker confirmed that there were no signs of maltreatment to the child.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) received three hotline calls informing them of abuse and neglect in the family. The three calls happened within a space of 13 months – AJ’s last 13 months.

According to reports from Fox News, the agency investigated the family following two of these hotline calls [2]. However, the worker investigating the first call didn’t get to see AJ on his first visit in March 2018. A worker at the hospital had placed a call to DCFS, complaining that AJ had “an odd bruising” on his face. This happened shortly after the police found Cunningham in her car, passed out with fresh needle marks all over her arms, feet, and neck.

The DCFS investigator didn’t get to see AJ, and he tried two more times before he got to see the kid about 5 weeks later when all the bruises were nearly gone. The worker ruled the complaint as unfounded and moved onto his next case.

The second call had been placed by the police to the DCFS to investigate the deplorable conditions of the children’s home. The officers had gone to the house after Cunningham placed a 911 call accusing her boyfriend of stealing her phone and prescription meds. The police investigated while the family was away, and they were compelled to make the call to the DCFS. The home had no power, the floor was broken and jagged, the windows were broken, the ceiling had water damage, and they found a drug needle lying around. They described the home as “dirty, cluttered, and in disrepair”, with an overwhelming stench of dog feces hanging in the air. The DCFS initially didn’t accept to investigate the call, but an unannounced visit from a worker confirmed that the living conditions had “improved”.

AJ’s painful death

The third call came in after AJ’s visit to the doctor. There was a large bruising on his right hip which the doctor couldn’t overlook. AJ and his mother simultaneously told him that their dog, a 60-pound brown boxer named Lucy had pawed the kid.

Taking AJ aside, the suspicious doctor pressured him further and the boy said: “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

The doctor immediately placed a call to the police, who then made a hotline complaint to the DCFS. The department ruled the case as unfounded, stating that there wasn’t enough evidence to support removing the child from his parents’ care.

On April 15, 2019, AJ died of trauma to the head and possible hypothermia after being made to stand in a cold shower for too long [3]. He was reported missing three days later, and the police found his body about a week from the day he died, buried in a shallow grave 7 miles from his home. His parents have been arrested and are facing murder charges, while his younger brother has been placed in protective custody.

Speaking on AJ’s case, Chicago Democrat Rep. Sara Feigenholtz said: “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”.

 “I always remind people that it was the parent — not DCFS — that killed the child,” said Dr. Jill Glick, a pediatrician and medical director of Child Advocacy and Protective Services at Comer Children’s Hospital. “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?”

May AJ’s tender soul rest in eternal bliss and may he remain a shining light in the sky for all eternity. The kid deserves justice for the pain and suffering he endured in his too-short life.

References:

  1. Troubled family history of slain Crystal Lake boy AJ Freund reveals missed warning signs, failed chances to intervene. Christy Gutowski. Chicago Tribune. April 27, 2019.
  2. Illinois agency’s timeline of interactions with slain boy. Associated Press. Fox News. April 27, 2019.
  3. Illinois boy told doctor ‘maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me’ months before beating death, records show. Katherine Lam. Fox News. April 28, 2019.
  4. As AJ’s Freund’s pregnant mother faces murder charge in his death, what happens when her baby is born? Angie Levents. Chicago Tribune. April 25, 2019.
  5. DCFS. Official website.
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