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Illinois Department of Child and Family Services discusses abuse complaint procedures after AJ's death

Agency's services under independent review

With residents, lawmakers and other parties questioning its practices after the death of Andrew “AJ” Freund, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Thursday explained its authority when handling accusations of abuse or neglect.

In November 2013, AJ – who was born with opiates in his system – was taken into protective custody and placed into a foster home. In June 2015, a judge ordered that AJ be returned to his mother’s custody, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said.

Other than a situation requiring short-term protective custody, Strokosch said, DCFS does not take children into custody or release them from custody without a judge’s order.

“We’re just one voice in that decision,” Strokosch said.

A DCFS investigation can result in an “indicated” finding, where there is credible evidence that a child was abused or neglected, or an “unfounded” finding, where there is not enough evidence to conclude abuse.

Strokosch said an “indicated” finding doesn’t necessarily mean DCFS will remove a child from a home.

AJ’s mother, JoAnn Cunningham – who along with Andrew Freund Sr. is being charged with her son’s death – is pregnant with her fourth child. Strokosch said that if Cunningham is incarcerated at the time of the child’s birth, DCFS would be notified. Once the baby can leave the hospital, Strokosch said the child would be put into protective custody, unless the parents can make other arrangements with a relative.

AJ has one younger brother, whom DCFS already has removed from the home. A shelter hearing will take place Monday to determine where Cunningham’s youngest son will stay while DCFS investigates abuse and neglect allegations.

A Freedom of Information Act from the Northwest Herald requesting documents on DCFS’s involvement with AJ was denied.

Criminal defense lawyer Matthew Haiduk said that after the hearing, the case will proceed like a criminal trial. However, instead of focusing on the perpetrator, the focus will be on the condition of the child.

If a child in the household is neglected, Haiduk said it can be presumed that siblings were neglected as well because of the injurious environment. He also said that these cases can drag on for years, even when the claims are not serious.

A petition to Gov. J.B. Pritzker posted on www.change.org to hold DCFS accountable for AJ’s death collected 20,000 signatures by 5 p.m. Thursday.

“DCFS ignores major complaints of child abuse and there is long-ignored history of this department failing at saving children from a harmful family,” the petition reads. “They conduct investigations that hold facts that children need to be placed in a safer home environment and they always fail to act.”

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the governor believes there is a moral responsibility to provide the best possible outcomes for children in the state’s care and to protect them when no one else will.

“An independent review of DCFS’s intact services program is being conducted by Chapin Hall (a policy research institute that focuses on child welfare at the University of Chicago), and we look forward to their recommendations when the report is complete in a few weeks,” Abudayyeh said. “Since taking office, the governor has also proposed providing additional funding for DCFS so 126 additional caseworkers can be made permanent.”

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