A tumble down the stairs, an accidentally overturned pot of boiling water, a clumsy night of sleepwalking – whenever AJ Freund had a cut, burn or bruise, his parents had an explanation.

In the privacy of a hospital room on Dec. 18, 2018, however, 5-year-old AJ offered a doctor his own explanation for the large bruise on his hip: “Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.” Earlier that day, AJ told former Department of Children and Family Services investigator Carlos Acosta that the family dog Lucy caused the bruise.

In an exclusive interview with Shaw Media Illinois, Acosta said he never went back to question AJ about the bruise. Instead, he relied on DCFS training, which tells caseworkers that a child's statements become less reliable each time they're interviewed.

“If something happens at your house and you ask your child how this happened and they tell you something, and then a couple of hours later you come back to them and you ask them again and [they] tell [you] the same thing, and then a couple of hours later you come back to them and you ask them again, at some point that child's going to think 'I'm not saying the right thing,’ ” Acosta said.

Four months later, AJ was reported missing. A week after that, his body was discovered in a shallow grave about 10 miles from his Crystal Lake home. His mother, JoAnn Cunningham, has since pleaded guilty to murdering her son. First-degree murder charges are pending against his father, Andrew Freund Sr.

As the community grieved AJ’s death, a new search began – one for answers about the state’s child welfare system and how, despite numerous police calls and contacts with Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services, the young boy was time and again returned to an abusive and often unkempt home.

Today, AJ’s life and death tell several stories: one about Illinois’ child welfare system, another about the juvenile justice systems and the families they serve. In the wake of the young boy's death, DCFS is at the center of questions surrounding case overload, employee turnover, and criticism that department practices drove AJ into the arms of his alleged killers.

No second opinion. Why?

Acosta has been criticized for his handling of a large bruise on AJ’s hip four months before the boy’s death. He and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin, have since been fired for their handling of the 2018 investigation. Reports of potential child abuse and neglect can be made through the Illinois Child Abuse Hotline at 800-252-2873.

The tragic story of AJ's death gripped people around northern Illinois and sparked frustration as the family's well-documented history with police and child welfare workers came to light. Reports began in June 2012, when Cunningham was accused of abusing prescription drugs and neglecting a foster child. A caller to the Illinois DCFS Child Abuse Hotline reported similar allegations later that year, accusing Cunningham of again abusing prescription drugs and neglecting her eldest son. DCFS deemed both 2012 reports unfounded.

Kathleen Gold, another former DCFS employee who has since retired, also had contact with AJ's family in 2018, according to records recently released by the McHenry County State's Attorney's office. In March of that year, staff at a Melrose Park hospital observed odd bruising on AJ’s face after his mother was found asleep in her car with fresh needle marks in her arm, and reported it as a possible case of child neglect. Gold verified Cunningham’s participation in drug treatment programs and the report was deemed unfounded and closed on May 18, 2018, according a federal wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of AJ's estate.

Like Acosta and Polovin, Gold also was assigned to desk duty in the wake of AJ's death.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that investigators working on AJ’s case were swamped with caseloads that exceeded the the 12 to 15 cases a month laid out in a 1991 federal consent decree. The B.H. Consent Decree was a result of a 1988 lawsuit in which a group of 10 foster children aged 2 to 17 years old, alleged DCFS did not provide them with safe and stable home placements.

Acosta and Gold each were handling investigation assignments above the decree’s limits when they had contact with the Freund family, ACLU Deputy Director of Communications Max Bever said.

One investigator who had contact with AJ exceeded the limit of cases for nine of 12 months in 2018, the Associated Press has reported.

During his December 2018 investigation, Acosta said he was aware of Gold's findings and spoke with her about them.

"What I took away from that conversation with the investigator is that Andrew was an appropriate caretaker," Acosta said. "There was concerns about JoAnn, but Andrew was appropriate."

When Acosta interviewed Cunningham in December 2018, she was in police custody after an arrest for driving with a suspended license. Acosta said Cunningham was anxious, trying to arrange bail. But she was cooperative, committed to bringing AJ to a doctor to have the bruise examined, and answered his questions.

Acosta declined to say what Cunningham told him about AJ's bruise. Cunningham was not charged with a crime for the bruise. Crystal Lake Police released five years' worth of police reports and contacts with JoAnn and Andrew at the couple's Dole Avenue home when AJ was reported missing.

Arrangements were made for AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr., to pick up AJ and his then 3-year-old brother and return them home. Acosta said he told Andrew that Cunningham was not allowed to be alone with the boys until further notice.

Acosta equated his feelings to those of a police officer who goes to a domestic disturbance and doesn't arrest anyone, and months later the abuser shoots the victim. But he stands by the decisions he made at the time.

"I'm torn emotionally. ... I don't deny the fact that I was there four months before and that's something that I'm going to have to live with forever, that I was there four months ago," Acosta said. "And again, should have, could have, would have. Did I still follow the policy and weigh the evidence that I had at the time? Yes."

The details of the former employees' investigations now are the subject of a federal wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of AJ's estate. The lawsuit claims a doctor at Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital said AJ's bruise could have been caused by "a dog, a belt, or a football." Unable to reach a conclusion, she recommended Acosta seek a second opinion from a professional trained to evaluate child abuse.

Although DCFS has contracts with several child abuse pediatrics specialists throughout the state, they typically are consulted in cases of more serious injuries, such as broken bones and skull fractures, or sexual abuse, Acosta said.

At the time, AJ's injuries didn't meet that threshold, Acosta said.

"I can't predict murder," Acosta said. "That’s, again, the unfortunate reality of being a child-welfare professional is all that you can hope for is that you never hear from them again."

'She was surrounded by cockroaches'

Two years earlier and 70 miles away, another child was killed in a home well-known to child-welfare authorities. Although the loss of 1-year-old Sema'j Crosby sparked similar outrage, no one has been charged in connection with her death.

Will County Sheriff's deputies began searching for Sema'j not long after her mother called 911 to report her missing from her home in Preston Heights, south of Joliet, around 5:45 p.m. on April 25, 2017. Authorities called in tracking dogs and a helicopter. The following day, the FBI joined the search – and people at the home stopped talking to police.

Finally, at 11 p.m. on April 26, 2017, family members agreed to allow police to search the dilapidated house where she lived with her mother, siblings, and other family members. Inside, they found the girl's body under a sofa, wearing the same clothes she had on when she was reported missing, Will County Deputy Chief Dan Jungles said.

“She was tossed under the couch like she was a piece of trash, like a piece of garbage,” Jungles said. “And she was surrounded by garbage. She was surrounded by cockroaches.”

Months later, the Will County Coroner’s office ruled Sema'j's death a homicide, citing asphyxia as the cause of death. The Will County Sheriff's Office continues to receive tips about Sema'j's death and will not close the case until it is solved, Jungles said.

"In this particular case, physical-evidence-wise, there's not a whole lot that we have to specifically tie anybody to the case," Jungles said. "People will say, 'Well, we would charge them all.' Well, I mean, that's all fine and good and dandy. I mean, I would love to charge everyone in that house with the murder of this girl. But proving it is another story."

A 2017 review of Sema’j’s death found there were 11 reports alleging inadequate supervision, physical and sexual abuse, drug use, and other issues at the Joliet Township house where Sema'j lived. It wasn’t clear if allegations of abuse or the cluttered and dirty conditions in the home were clearly communicated between DCFS investigators and third-party workers who provided in-home family assistance and educational services.

Like AJ, police believe Sema’j died in her home days before police found her. The girl’s father, James Crosby, has since filed a lawsuit against Sema’j's mother, Sheri Gordon, and a family services contractor. In the suit, Crosby alleges that both Gordon and Children’s Home & Aid Society of Illinois (a contractor with DCFS) subjected Sema’j to living conditions that “presented a clear safety hazard for any child within the home.”

The mess at both Sema’j's and AJ’s homes spilled outside onto the yard, where discarded furniture and garbage were strewn about. Photos from inside both homes showed piles of trash bags and clothing, and old food, leading the public to ask: what does it take to remove a child from a home?

The removal process

Decisions about a child’s placement aren’t left in the hands of a single entity. Before a child can be removed from his or her home, the family’s living situation often is subject to scrutiny by DCFS, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges, said Will County 12th Circuit Court Judge Paula Gomora, who presides over juvenile cases.

“It’s a long process. DCFS will become involved after an individual who remains anonymous makes a hotline call, and DCFS does an investigation," Gomora said. "DCFS can make certain decisions about whether or not they want to leave the children in the home and have services provided to the family so that the kids can stay there.”

Crystal Lake police had visited the Freund home several times over the years. Officers took AJ and his brother to the police station on Dec. 18, 2018, after their mother was arrested.

Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black declined to comment specifically on the Freund case because Andrew Freund Sr. still is facing murder charges. He said in general, officers can remove children from a home temporarily if the children are in immediate danger, but will only hold them for DCFS.

Ultimate responsibility for the children's living situation rests with child-welfare authorities, he said. The cases often are challenging because they involve children who often can not tell police exactly what is going on, Black said.

In September 2016, Intact Family Services stepped in to help Sema’j's mother, who failed to participate in several attempts at intervention, possibly because of a cognitive disability, according to DCFS records. Sema’j was reported to appear safe in her family’s care hours before the report of her disappearance.

Although AJ's family didn't receive intact services, his history with DCFS began almost immediately. AJ was born with opiates in his system and placed in the care of a relative a month later in 2013. After Cunningham and Freund participated in parenting and drug treatment programs, a judge ordered AJ returned to his mother in June 2015.

Presumptions for or against removing children from their home come in waves. After a mentally ill mother, Amanda Wallace, hanged her 3-year-old son Joey in 1993, Acosta's case loads rose noticeably, he said. Records show that the number of children living with foster families also swelled during that time, peaking at 51,000 in 1997. The number has since declined precipitously, with less than 17,000 who have been placed with foster families or relatives.

"Because the Amanda Wallace case was a return-home case where she had her son recently returned to her, judges weren't sending kids home," Acosta said.

In the case of both Sema'j and AJ, keeping them in their homes led to tragedy. In general, however, the system is designed to keep families together, not separate them, Gomora said.

"We want kids to go home. We want the state not to be involved," she said. "And as soon as we see that the parent can safely parent their children ... our job is done. Of course things can happen along the way where, despite the court’s best efforts, the department’s best efforts, things go wrong and can't be foreseen.

"You can’t monitor everybody’s life forever. That’s not what these proceedings are meant to do."

• Shaw Media Illinois reporter Felix Sarver contributed to this report.

For more local news, visit Northwest Herald at https://www.nwherald.com.

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