This editorial appeared in the April 29, 2019, edition of the Chicago Tribune:
The possibility is sickening to contemplate: 5-year-old AJ Freund didn't have to die. His death, allegedly at the hands of his parents, could have been prevented by a well-run child welfare system.
Witnesses in all corners of AJ's life saw signs of abuse or neglect. A doctor, neighbors, police and others knew or suspected that much was amiss over the years. Many of them sounded alarms that were recorded by the courts and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which once again finds itself struggling to explain why a child on its watch is now dead.
"Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn't mean to hurt me," a bruised AJ told a suspicious doctor in December, four months before he was beaten to death in Crystal Lake, according to reporting by the Tribune's Christy Gutowski.
Yet AJ, who was born with opioids in his system, was left to live in a filthy house of horrors where it appears he was hurt again and again. Authorities have charged his parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund, with his murder.
Last month, the tiny victim was Ja'hir Gibbons, age 2. Two years ago, it was Semaj Crosby, 17 months, of Joliet Township. There have been too many others over the years.
After Semaj's killing, DCFS — not for the first time — pledged various changes. One of them was improving case reviews for children whose families, like Semaj's and AJ's, had drawn multiple investigations. A child welfare watchdog is not impressed: "There's not been any consistent, systemic reforms," said Charles Golbert, acting Cook County public guardian. "None of this is brain surgery. It's commitment and resources and consistent, long-term-minded leadership."
The failings at DCFS run right to the top of the organization. There has been a revolving door of leadership for years. Managers and investigators are tasked with the difficult job of looking into the private lives of troubled families and making responsible decisions about the welfare of children. Even the best-run agency would be challenged. DCFS is beleaguered.
This is the crisis facing Marc Smith, the newly appointed director of DCFS. AJ's case did not happen on his watch, but he now owns the job of identifying and correcting the department's failings.
Of immediate concern is how DCFS weighs the risks to children against the department's desire to keep families intact. Smith told lawmakers during a budget hearing Friday that he supports the policy of keeping children with their parents "when they can provide a safe, nurturing environment." But he said case workers will be better trained, and the agency will work more closely with the court system, to determine whether kids should be placed with a family member or in foster care.
The DCFS worker and supervisor who handled AJ's case have been placed on administrative duties, Smith said. On the bigger issues of how to effectively manage high-risk families, DCFS officials didn't have sufficient answers Friday, but they remain accountable.
When children are identified as being at risk, it becomes DCFS' responsibility to keep them safe. That system failed AJ Freund.
As the new director, it's now on Smith to do better by all children DCFS monitors, and by AJ's memory — before the next avoidable tragedy happens.