CHICAGO (CBS) — A group of activists in McHenry County is seeking changes at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, as the parents of 5-year-old A.J. Freund face murder charges in his grisly death.
The child welfare agency’s handling of A.J.’s case has come under intense scrutiny after his death, in light of DCFS reports that revealed A.J. told a doctor of possible abuse four months before he was killed.
“There’s other kids right now right here in McHenry County that are in the same situation. Are they going to miss them?” demonstrator Tim Phalin said as A.J.’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., were in court for a status hearing in the murder case against them.
A.J.’s parents have pleaded not guilty after they were formally indicted on a combined 61 charges of murder, aggravated battery, and concealing a homicide in A.J.’s death in April. They are accused of beating him to death, burying him in a field, and reporting him missing in an effort to cover up the murder.
Tuesday’s hearing in the case lasted only a few minutes, with the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office asking for the couple to submit fingerprints and DNA. Prosecutors also said they are waiting for more scientific evidence in the case.
A group called “ROAR For A.J.” organized a demonstration outside the McHenry County Courthouse on Tuesday during Tuesday’s hearing. They have said they want justice for him, and policy changes at DCFS.
The demonstrators had the chance to meet with the McHenry County State’s Attorney to voice their concerns about how A.J.’s case was handled. They said their message was clear.
“A.J., in this specific case, he used his voice. He said who hurt him, how they hurt him, and he was left unheard,” said organizer Tracy Cooper Kotzman.
The demonstrators want DCFS held accountable for A.J.’s death. Four months before his death, a DCFS investigator deemed neglect allegations against A.J.’s mother unfounded, after a doctor could not pinpoint the cause of a mysterious bruise on the boy’s hip.
Police had called DCFS after A.J.’s mother, JoAnn Cunningham, had been arrested for driving on a suspended license in 2018, according to Crystal Lake Police Department reports. The officer had visited the family’s home, and noted not only was the house in deplorable condition, but A.J. was running around wearing only a pull-up and sporting a large bruise on his hip.
When a DCFS investigator arrived, A.J. said he suffered the bruise “when the family dog pawed him.” However, after going to the hospital to have the bruise checked, a doctor told the DCFS investigator A.J. claimed “maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” according to a DCFS timeline.
The doctor said he could not determine how A.J. was injured, stating the bruise “could have been caused by a dog, belt or a football,” according to the report.
The investigator released A.J. back into his parents’ custody, but advised his father to stay at home “as a safety precaution.”
The DCFS report also revealed significant discrepancies between the deplorable conditions police had found inside the home, and the conditions the DCFS investigator noted one day later. The investigator ultimately deemed allegations of neglect unfounded, “due to lack of evidence for cuts, welt and bruises allegation.”
The DCFS timeline also revealed that Cunningham was being investigated for her behavior as foster parent, before A.J. was born. In June, 2012, she was accused of abusing prescription drugs and neglecting her foster child.
Four months later, A.J.’s parents allegedly forced him into a cold shower for an extended period of time, and beat him to death. They reported him missing three days later, prompting a weeklong search that led to the discovery of his body wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave about seven miles from the family home in Crystal Lake.
The next hearing in the criminal case was set for July 16, although Freund and Cunningham are due back in court on June 24 to determine if they will be stripped of their parental rights to A.J.’s younger brother.
Cunningham and Freund Sr. are being held on $5 million bond.
Cunningham was about seven months pregnant at the time of her arrest, and gave birth to a baby girl last week. The infant is now in state custody.