I have a few updates tonight on the case of AJ Freund, the precious 5-year-old boy from Illinois who died at the hands of his mother (who pleaded guilty in December) and, allegedly, his father, who has thus far pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
Back in November, a judge gave the green light for the Freund home to be demolished. The house at 94 Dole Avenue in Crystal Lake, Illinois has been vacant since April 24, 2019, when AJ’s parents, 61-year-old Andrew “Drew” Freund Sr. and 36-year-old JoAnn Cunningham, were arrested in connection with his death. After their arrests, the house was boarded up and deemed uninhabitable, racking up 41 code violations. These included mouse droppings, visible mold on the ceilings, missing flooring and subflooring, an abundance of trash, animal waste, and debris strewn throughout the house, missing plaster and drywall, and, most chillingly, locks on interior doors within the house. I posted photos of the deplorable conditions in the home in a previous post.
The complaint filed last year by the city of Crystal Lake read, “[The home] is unfit for human occupancy and dangerous and unsafe because the condition of the subject property is damaged, decayed, dilapidated or in poor repair, such that subject property is unsafe to the life, health, property or safety of the public and/or occupants of the structure.”
Inspections by the city determined that the property would need more than $100,000 in repairs just to bring it up to code, leading to the decision that it would make more economic sense to tear down the house.
A former neighbor of the Freunds, Janelle Butler, said the home was in disrepair for some time even before AJ died. “It absolutely needs to be torn down,” she told the Chicago Tribune in July, “and it needed to be even before all of this happened.”
After demolition of the house was sanctioned, the Crystal Lake city council reviewed offers by several contractors. On January 7, the council accepted an offer from Green Demolition Contractors Inc., a Chicago company, to provide the demolition services free of charge, along with a contract with another firm to remove asbestos, which must be removed from the bathroom and basement before the house can be demolished.
In other case news, Drew appeared in court today (Tuesday, January 14th) for a brief status hearing, which news cameras recorded live for the first time in McHenry County. During the hearing, the judge ruled that media coverage would be allowed at all future proceedings relating to the case.
The presence of news media in the courtroom was not allowed in McHenry County until a December Illinois Supreme Court decision to approve extended media coverage at the county courthouse in Woodstock. Each request to allow cameras in the courtroom will be reviewed on a case by case basis and will hinge on a judge’s approval.
This is excellent news for those of us who have been glued to this case since the beginning; like I did last week with the trial of Daniel and Jessica Groves (the Ohio parents who were convicted of murdering their weeks-old infant, Dylan, and throwing his tiny body in a well), I am hoping to watch the trial and provide updates at least daily, if not more frequently. It will be interesting to see if JoAnn will be called to testify in Drew’s case.
Drew is scheduled for his next status update hearing on February 27. JoAnn faces 20 to 60 years in prison, but a sentencing hearing for her has not yet been scheduled.
AJ’s case has shone a glaring spotlight on the catastrophic failure of DCFS in the state. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Inspector General’s annual report reveals an utterly shocking statistic: 123 children — yes, that’s one hundred and twenty three! — who had contact with DCFS between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019 died within twelve months of that contact. The report begins with a pointed message from Meryl Paniak, the inspector general of DCFS:
“We, Illinois, must do better.”
Paniak continues, “As I submit this report, I am disheartened that many of the problems I identify here have been identified before, both by me and my predecessor. I recently reviewed a 2004 article which addressed the same child welfare issues I highlight in this report.”
Some of the issues referenced include:
- Children killed after DCFS failed to remove them from the homes of abusive parents or their partners
- Children removed from their homes only to sleep on the floors in DCFS offices
- Children kept longer than medically necessary in psychiatric hospitals
- The lack of foster homes and services for children and families whose native language is not English
- Investigators who cut corners and shirk their duties, leading to disastrous consequences, such as in AJ’s case
The report reads, “The death of AJ Freund… is emblematic of DCFS’s failure to look beyond the current crisis to consider the entire history of the family.” It continues, “In Freund, investigators ignore the parents’ long history of addiction, the mother’s recent relapse, and the parents’ isolation of the children from caring relatives and day care providers.”
Two DCFS employees involved in AJ’s case have since been fired.
“Let’s not continue making the same mistakes which led to the deaths of Joseph Wallace, AJ Freund and so many other children in Illinois,” the report states, referencing the death of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace in 1993. Joseph was killed by his mother, Amanda Wallace, who suffered from mental illness but still regained custody of the boy despite red flags indicating she would hurt him. Amanda hanged her young son with an electrical cord. “Let’s use what we know to decrease the number of unnecessary deaths of Illinois children in the coming year.”
Amen to that.
Click here for more of my coverage on AJ’s case.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, Northwest Herald, NBC Chicago, Putnam County Record