CHICAGO (CBS) — Former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services caseworker Carlos Acosta pleaded not guilty Thursday to felony charges accusing him of failing to protect 5-year-old A.J. Freund, who died at the hands of his parents.
Acosta, 54, made his first court appearance Thursday morning in McHenry County. Both he and former DCFS supervisor Andrew Polovin, 48, were arrested earlier this month on two felony counts of endangering the life of a child and one felony count of reckless conduct. Both are free on bail.
Through his attorney, Acosta pleaded not guilty and demanded a trial by jury. He is due back in court on Nov. 5.
Before Acosta’s arraignment, McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt told prosecutors and defense attorneys that he once worked at a law firm that represented a non-profit where Acosta once served as president. However, Wilbrandt said he never personally represented the non-profit, or Acosta, and does not know Acosta personally. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys asked Wilbrandt to recuse himself from the case.
Acosta is also a member of the McHenry County Board, where his term won’t expire until 2022. He was a no-show at a board meeting earlier this month, when several residents called on him to step down.
Polovin pleaded not guilty last week, and is due back in court on Oct. 29.
Polovin and Acosta have been accused of failing to properly investigate allegations concerning A.J.’s treatment, despite concerns raised by police and others.
It’s a case legal experts call unprecedented in Illinois; charging DCFS employees with a crime over the death of a child they were assigned to protect at the hands of his parents.
Polovin and Acosta were fired from DCFS last December, along with DCFS caseworker Kathleen Gold, who has not been charged with a crime.
Last month, A.J.’s mother, JoAnn Cunningham, was sentenced to 35 years in prison, after pleading guilty to first-degree murder last year. His father, Andrew Freund Sr., pleaded guilty last week to to charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated battery to a child, and concealment of a homicide; and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
DCFS had had prior contact with the family, but investigators had deemed allegations of abuse unfounded, despite concerns from a doctor and police.
A.J.’s estate filed a federal lawsuit last fall against Acosta and Polovin, accusing them of either failing to investigate allegations he had been abused, or improperly determining the allegations were unfounded, despite concerns raised by police and others.
DCFS handling of A.J.’s case came under intense scrutiny after his death, in light of agency reports that revealed A.J. told a doctor of possible abuse four months before he was killed.
In December 2018, 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.
Crystal Lake Police had called DCFS after 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 since-demolished 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 severely beat him as punishment for soiling his clothes. His father later found him dead in his bed at their home in Crystal Lake and buried him in a shallow grave about seven miles away. A.J.’s parents reported him missing three days later, prompting a weeklong search before A.J.’s father eventually led authorities to the boy’s body.