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Former child welfare worker guilty of endangerment in death of Illinois 5-year-old

Robert McCoppin | Chicago Tribune

In what is believed to be the first successful prosecution of its kind in Illinois, a former child welfare worker was found guilty Friday of child endangerment in the beating death of 5-year-old AJ Freund in Crystal Lake, but his supervisor was found not guilty.

Carlos Acosta, who was the case investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, was found guilty in McHenry County court of endangering the life or health of a child. He was found not guilty of reckless conduct.

Lake County Judge George Strickland said he could not find Acosta’s supervisor, Andrew Polovin, guilty of either charge because he did not know how much Polovin knew about AJ being abused. Strickland handled the case because all McHenry County judges recused themselves.

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.

Acosta, who is free on bond, faces two to 10 years in prison or probation. He is a former McHenry County board member.

Polovin’s attorney, Matthew McQuaid, said he and his client were “grateful” for the verdict.

“I never thought he committed a crime,” McQuaid said.

He said Polovin, who was fired by DCFS, is working in another field.

This was believed to be the first successful prosecution of a child welfare worker in Illinois, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said.

He said AJ’s family supported the prosecution and was “relieved” by the verdict.

As for DCFS, Kenneally said he hoped it would bring accountability to the agency.

“We hope it’s a shift in the landscape,” he said. “We’ve been running across — at least as long as I’ve been here — a significant deficit in the ability of DCFS to investigate these cases and to get us accurate information and to help us keep children safe.”

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.

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 for 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.

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

“I know that you weren’t supervising anything,” the judge told Polovin. He particularly ridiculed Polovin’s comment in a text message about AJ’s bruise being caused by a dog, “That looks nasty, but if that’s what the kid says.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you completely abdicated your responsibility in this case,” the judge told Polovin. “However, because I don’t know exactly what you knew and when you knew it, I cannot find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The judge said he was “haunted” by videos of AJ’s mother repeatedly taunting her son about how he might report her to authorities.

“At the end of the day … he was failed by the adults in his life,” the judge said. “He died, he was tortured to death. He deserved due process. AJ never got due process from DCFS. He died suffering, and I hold the two of you and DCFS responsible for that.”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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