Home News AJ Freund caseworker get 6 months in jail for child endangerment

AJ Freund caseworker get 6 months in jail for child endangerment

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A former state child welfare caseworker on Thursday was sentenced to six months in jail and 30 months of probation for child endangerment in the case of AJ Freund, a 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy who was beaten to death in 2019.

Carlos Acosta also was ordered to contribute $1,000 to the McHenry County Children’s Advocacy Center and to perform 200 hours of public service by Lake County Associate Judge George Stickland.

Acosta, a former McHenry County Board member, was convicted in October in what was believed to be the first successful prosecution of a child welfare worker in Illinois.

Acosta was found guilty of endangering the life or health of a child. He was found not guilty of reckless conduct.

AJ died in April 2019 after being beaten by his mother, JoAnn Cunningham. She is serving a 35-year sentence for his murder.

The boy’s father, Andrew Freund Sr., was sentenced to 30 years in prison for convictions related to covering up the murder by burying the boy’s body in a field.

Strickland in October said he could not find Acosta’s supervisor at the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, Andrew Polovin, guilty of either charge because he did not know how much Polovin knew about AJ being abused. Polovin, who was fired by DCFS, is working in another field. Strickland handled the case because all McHenry County judges recused themselves.

The case centered on events that occurred Dec. 18, 2018, four months before AJ’s death, when police called Acosta to investigate AJ’s possible child abuse.

At that time, Cunningham had called police to report her ex-boyfriend had stolen her cellphone and her Suboxone, a drug used to treat heroin addiction.

When Crystal Lake police responded, Officer Kimberley Shipbaugh reported that the house was “disgusting,” with a ripped-up floor and ceiling, broken and open windows, and feces and urine throughout. When she asked about a large bruise on AJ’s hip, she said the hairs on her arm stood up when the mother prompted AJ to agree that the dog did it.

Immediately suspecting abuse, the officer took AJ into protective custody.

Later that day, when a doctor asked how the bruise happened, the boy told her, “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

The doctor recommended that a physician trained in child abuse conduct a more thorough examination and that AJ not be released to his mother. But Acosta ended protective custody, and let AJ go home with his father, with no further medical exam.

The judge found that Acosta’s reports were “dishonest” by repeatedly omitting important warning signs of potential abuse, such as the mother’s mental illness, apparent recent drug use, marks on AJ’s face and terrible living conditions.

Carlos Acosta listens to McHenry County State's Assistant Attorney Randi Freeze as she delivers the state's closing argument the during the trial for the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees Acosta and Andrew Polovin before Lake County Judge George Strickland on Oct. 13, 2023, at the McHenry County Courthouse. (Gregory Shaver/Northwest Herald)
Carlos Acosta listens to McHenry County State’s Assistant Attorney Randi Freeze as she delivers the state’s closing argument the during the trial for the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees Acosta and Andrew Polovin before Lake County Judge George Strickland on Oct. 13, 2023, at the McHenry County Courthouse. (Gregory Shaver/Northwest Herald)

The case should have been viewed in the context of the family’s long-standing dysfunction, the judge said. Cunningham had lost custody of AJ for 18 months when she gave birth to him with opioids and benzodiazepines in their bodies. She had a history of heroin use, as recently as March of 2018, had repeated calls to the police alleging she committed domestic violence against AJ’s father, had repeatedly threatened suicide, and previously lost custody of a foster child.

Strickland said Acosta’s failures were a proximate cause of AJ’s death, and called the explanation that the dog caused the bruise “laughable.”

“This is a refusal to investigate,” the judge said.

Because the judge found Acosta guilty of child endangerment, prosecutors said, he could not by law also convict him of reckless conduct.

Defense attorneys Rebecca Lee and Jamie Wombacher had argued that prosecutors and their witnesses were using “gross speculation” and the benefit of hindsight, with later knowledge of AJ’s death, to scapegoat Acosta. They said DCFS was violating a court order limiting the number of cases for each investigator.

“At the end of the day,” Lee said of DCFS workers, “they’re making judgment calls.”

Even if DCFS workers were overloaded with cases, the judge said in his ruling, they should have gotten help from the police, prosecutors, doctors and the Children’s Advocacy Center to look into the case.

This is a developing story. Check back for more details. 

 



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