Waking up to this news absolutely made my day. Is that schadenfreude? Probably, but so be it.
On Thursday, September 10, two former employees of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services were arrested for their failure to act in the case of five-year-old AJ Freund, whose parents reported him missing on April 18, 2019. AJ’s body was found on April 24 several miles from the family’s home in Crystal Lake, wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave near Woodstock.
AJ’s parents were arrested and charged in his death. His mother, JoAnn Cunningham, took a plea deal and was sentenced in July of 2020 to a measly 35 years in prison for beating AJ so savagely about the head with a showerhead that his brain herniated, causing his death. AJ’s father, Drew Freund, is currently awaiting trial, although his lawyer has said multiple times that a plea agreement is in the works for him, as well.
The DCFS workers in question are 54-year-old Carlos J. Acosta of Woodstock, who was the caseworker overseeing AJ’s case in 2018, and his former supervisor, 48-year-old Andrew R. Polovin of Island Lake. After an internal investigation into their handling of AJ’s case, DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak recommended the men’s termination, saying they “failed to see the totality” of the problematic history of the Cunningham-Freund family and ignored opportunities to intervene.
Both Acosta and Polovin left the agency in December of 2019 after an internal investigation into their handling of AJ’s case. At the time of his contact with AJ’s family, Acosta’s caseload was above the allowed threshold based on a federal decree. According to the Illinois comptroller’s office database, Acosta’s salary in 2019 was $95,900; Polovin’s was $189,000.
Both Acosta and Polovin were charged with two felony counts of endangering the life of a child and one felony count of reckless conduct. After warrants were issued for their arrest, the two men were taken into custody without incident on Thursday and booked into the McHenry County Correctional Facility.
Bail for each defendant was set at $20,000 bail. Jail records indicate that both were released the same night after they each posted the required ten percent, or $2,000.
The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment to the media about specifics behind the men’s charges. However, in May, prosecutors revealed that they were investigating possible charges against Polovin. A search warrant was filed on May 7, 2020, indicating McHenry County State’s Attorney Investigator Robert Diviacchi sought Andrew Polovin’s personnel file, training transcripts, and employee evaluations.
Prior to his death, AJ and his family had frequent and intensive contact with DCFS. Acosta was a child protection specialist assigned to an investigation opened on December 18, 2018, whenr Crystal Lake police officer Kimberly Shipbaugh contacted the agency over a massive bruise on AJ’s hip, which AJ explained initially by agreeing with his mother’s suggestion that the family dog, Lucy, had done it to him.
This was the third DCFS investigation into JoAnn Cunningham and her children; Polovin was the supervisor overseeing all three of the investigations. JoAnn was well known for her long and storied history of drug abuse and addiction. Custody of JoAnn’s oldest son, Austin, had been awarded to her mother years earlier. AJ was born with heroin in his system, at which time he was removed from his parents’ custody and only returned when he was about 18 months old.
Acosta met with AJ at the police department on that day in December of 2018 and later described the little boy’s injury “by saying he had not seen bruising like it in his years as a child protection investigator.”
The search warrant affidavit detailed AJ telling Acosta that Lucy “pawed at him.” After AJ was taken to the hospital, Acosta texted a photo of the bruise to Polovin, his supervisor. “Acosta texted his supervisor Mr. Polovin ‘Kid says [big dog] put paw on me. I take that to mean a scratch.’ Mr. Polovin responded, ‘That looks nasty but if that’s what the kid says.’”
AJ later told Dr. JoEllen Channon, an emergency room physician who questioned him about the bruise, that someone “not in my family” caused the injury. At one point, AJ said, “Maybe somebody hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”
The doctor requested Acosta send a professional interviewer to talk to AJ and examine the bruise. Acosta documented the conversation with the doctor by saying Dr. Channon could not determine what caused AJ’s injury because she was not a child abuse or forensic specialist. The doctor told him she and her staff did not believe it was safe to send AJ home with his mother, but Acosta replied that he and Polovin had determined AJ would be safe in his father’s care.
In the affidavit, Diviacchi accused Polovin of failing to conduct a proper investigation before allowing protective custody of AJ to lapse, as well as omitting a report from Crystal Lake Police, medical records, and a home safety checklist from AJ’s file in December of 2018. “From the Inspector General’s report,” Diviacchi wrote, “it is indicated that Mr. Polovin’s lack of supervisory oversight was willful and [wanton], given the nature of the injury, the explanations that had been given and rejected by police and unsupported by medical examination.”
The affidavit also stated that several essential steps were ignored by Polovin before allowing AJ to return home, including investigating AJ’s home environment, interviewing Drew Freund, reviewing medical records and police reports, getting a second medical opinion, and documenting the decision to send AJ home with his parents.
According to multiple witnesses, including law enforcement who testified at JoAnn Cunningham’s sentencing hearing in July of this year, the Freund home at 94 Dole Avenue in Crystal Lake was a nightmare of garbage, filth, mold, dog urine and feces, and dangerous disrepair.
Rock star prosecutor Patrick Kenneally, who put on a comprehensive, compelling, and practically airtight case against JoAnn Cunningham at her sentencing hearing, said the charges were approved on Thursday by a grand jury, adding that the joint investigation with police had been taking place, at least to a degree, since AJ died.
“The vast majority of the evidence was uncovered as part of the AJ death investigation,” Kenneally said.
Near the end of 2019, Acosta said in an interview that he followed protocol in the December 2018 case. “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. 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.”
DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey had “no comment” about the arrests.
Carlos Acosta, in addition to being a former employee of DCFS, is also an elected member of the McHenry County Board.
Both Acosta and Polovin are named in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of AJ’s estate, representing his two brothers, ages 20 and 5, and a 16-month-old sister born to JoAnn in jail after her arrest in AJ’s death. The lawsuit is based on the claim that the two former DCFS employees displayed “an inhuman indifference to AJ’s safety.”
Both personally and professionally, I strongly believe an example must be made of Carlos Acosta and Andrew Polovin. Too often, negligent child protection caseworkers are allowed to duck criminal charges and continue living their lives despite their blatant failure to protect children, which is their job. I know many child protection employees are overworked through no fault of their own, but in some cases, these people make catastrophically terrible decisions out of sheer laziness or apathy, and those are the people who need to be held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. AJ might still be alive if Carlos Acosta hadn’t allowed him to return home after the hip-bruise incident and fudged reports in AJ’s case, all of which was overseen and sanctioned by Andrew Polovin.
I hope the McHenry County Prosecutor’s Office nails these men to the wall.
Sources: The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Herald, NBC Chicago