This week’s news of 5-year-old AJ Freund’s murder, allegedly by his parents, coincides with the heartbreaking anniversary of the death of toddler Semaj Crosby of Joliet, who was found dead under her family’s couch two years ago.
In March, 2-year-old Ja’hir Gibbons of Chicago was murdered allegedly at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.
All three children and their families had previous contacts with the Department of Children and Family Services in the year preceding their deaths.
Now, many in the community are asking how and why this is continuing to happen.
"We’re seeing a cycle perpetuated year over year over year, and it’s sad," said Alpa Patel, Deputy Director of Cook County’s Office of the Public Guardian.
From July 2017 to June 2018, there were 98 deaths of children who were involved in the child welfare system within the preceding 12 months. Of those, 18 were homicides, according to DCFS’ Office of the Inspector General. All 18 of those kids and their families either had a closed or pending child protection investigation or were involved in DCFS’ Intact Family Services plan, records show.
The Intact program is DCFS’ largest program and aims to keep together families, who come to the agency’s attention as a result of a child abuse or neglect investigation, by providing services and resources.
"I support reunification when it’s appropriate, but as we can see, some of these cases were not appropriate," said State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz of Chicago.
Rep. Feigenholtz points to multiple police and DCFS contacts with the parents of AJ Freund. The boy was removed from his home in October 2013 shortly after his birth because parents Andrew Freund and Joann Cunningham tested positive for opiates, DCFS records show.
A judge ordered AJ to be returned to his family in June 2015.
DCFS caseworkers were called to the family’s Crystal Lake home repeatedly in 2018 for alleged abuse and neglect allegations after AJ and his brother were found with cuts, welts and bruises. In December 2018, a doctor was concerned because AJ stated "maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me."
Police also noted dog feces and urine were scattered through the home. The DCFS caseworker and supervisor who worked with AJ’s family have been placed on administrative duty while a review is underway.
"That’s not normal and to pretend like it is or is consistent with just poverty or whatever that might be, that’s ignoring a red flag," Patel said.
Similarly, police and DCFS were called to the home of Semaj Crosby multiple times in her short life. In the aftermath of her death, DCFS was criticized for closing cases as “unfounded” and not noticing a recurring pattern.
DCFS has since made policy changes, including putting alerts in place for families with open cases who become subjects of new investigations. This change, the department said, would ensure that underlying issues are being addressed.
Children’s advocates attribute much of the dysfunction to DCFS’ revolving door of directors. There have been 13 since 2003. Advocates also note that 85 percent of DCFS caseworkers are employed by private agencies, and they haven’t seen a rate increase in 12 years.
"Because of the low wage and the attrition, a lot of them get jobs that pay more at McDonalds in their towns," said Rep. Feigenholtz.
Not only are caseworkers underpaid, Patel and Feigenholtz said there is a lack of training and consistent monitoring of the private agencies by DCFS.
Gov. JB Pritzker recently appointed Marc Smith as the new director of DCFS. Smith was the Executive Vice President of Foster Care and Intact Services at Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness.
Pritzker also commissioned the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall to evaluate DCFS’s Intact Family Service unit and other operations. That report is expected to be completed in mid-May.