CHICAGO - The death of a McHenry County 5-year-old last month, whose parents are charged with his murder, has many pointing the finger at the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.
AJ Freund's family had contact with DCFS before his murder. Four months before the child was beaten and buried in a shallow grave, according to police, DCFS made a visit to the home. A police officer detailed "dog feces and urine were scattered about the residence,” windows were open or broken [in December], there was a broken heat source and clothes were piled up. A window in AJ and his brother's room was open and “the smell of feces was overwhelming” in their room.
Police also noticed AJ was only wearing a pull-up and had a suspicious bruise. Despite evidence from the police report, a DCFS employee visited the home the following day, ultimately deeming the report of neglect and abuse unfounded “due to lack of evidence for a cuts, welt and bruises allegation.”
Ninety-eight children who had contact with DCFS in Illinois died during the most recent fiscal year, according to an Office of Inspector General report, citing statistics from June 2017 to July 2018. AJ Freund was yet another casualty.
"Two years ago we were at basically a crisis point. I had on my caseload 80 pending investigations. Some of my colleagues had up to 100 pending investigations," said 24 year DCFS veteran Stephen Mittons.
Mittons has worked as an investigator his entire tenure with the agency. In March alone, he says DCFS investigators received 6800 reported abuse or neglect cases. Investigators have 60 days to close or outsource a case.
Right now, Mittons is working on 40 cases. Alishia Glover is also an investigator. Her service area is more than 130 square miles, from the South Side of Chicago to the southwest suburbs.
"Nine to 5 is almost non-existant as a child protection investigator and a typical day really isn't typical," Glover said.
When asked about the public outrage, at what is perceived as the agency's negligence, Glover said, "My feeling is that the public's outrage is misunderstood and it's misdirected."
But the public isn't the agency's only critic.
McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, whose district includes where AJ Freund died has blasted DCFS. In a statement, he says "DCFS in McHenry County is not adequately fulfilling its critically important responsibilities." He believes the agency "requires drastic reform in terms of its management and the quality of its personnel.”
When you ask Glover and Mittons who is to blame for the mishandling of cases, they point to the outsourcing of vital resources.
"Eighty-five percent of DCFS work that we did 25 years ago when I came into the agency has now been outsourced," Mittons said.
Two-thirds of the agency's budget for intact family services and placement services, according to Mittons, goes to the private sector. Intact family services occurs when an outside agency is contracted to stabilize the home. Mental health and drug treatment, along with employment assistance, is provided to the parents. The goal is to fix the underlying issues that caused the abuse, so the child can remain in the home.
The problem according to the investigators, is once a family receives intact family services, DCFS investigators stop tracking the case.
"Once that intact worker is assigned, it's removed from us, we don’t have the jurisdiction," Glover said.
Lack of staffing is another issue and is the most apparent in the Northern District where AJ Freund was allegedly murdered last month.
"Northern region, where that case is located, is one of the areas that continues to have problems with investigative staffing," said Anne Irving, the AFSCME union liaison to DCFS.
A 2019 Office of Inspector General report recommends DCFS investigators follow up with a child's doctor if their injury requires a medical visit, as well as develop practices to ensure workable caseloads, and follow up with families given intact family services.
In his proposed budget, Governor JB Pritzker is adding $75 million to the DCFS budget. More than 100 new caseworkers and investigators will be hired.
"Governor Pritzker has put us in a position to now where we can at least become even with the 8 ball... We now have a little breathing room to where we can adequately do what it is that we're really out here to do," Mittons said.
A spokesman for DCFS responded to this report saying, “The opinions expressed by DCFS employees in this interview do not represent those of the department.”