Trial of two DCFS workers In Freund death set to close

By Gregory Harutunian for Chronicle Media

Lake County Judge George Strickland addresses the defendants and attorneys. (Northwest Herald/Gregory Shaver, pool photo)

Closing arguments will be heard Oct. 13, as well as a decision rendered, in the bench trial of two former Illinois Children and Family Services charged with mishandling the case involving AJ Freund. The 5-year old Crystal Lake boy was killed through abuse by his mother and father in April 2019.

A judicial order was received at the McHenry County Court Administrator’s Office Thursday, Sept. 21, confirming the date, two days after a case management hearing.

Carlos Acosta, 57, a caseworker with DCFS and a former McHenry County Board member, and Andrew Polovin, 51, his supervisor, are each charged with two counts of endangering the life of a child and the health of a minor (Class 3 felonies), and one count of reckless conduct (Class 4 felony), with the indictments coming in 2020.

Lake County Circuit Court Judge George D. Strickland was assigned to preside over the case, as McHenry County judges recused themselves from participation.

AJ Freund was beaten by his mother, JoAnn Cunningham, for soiling himself on April 14, 2019. He was forced to stand in a cold shower, then put to bed wet and naked. AJ died that evening. His father, Andrew Freund, stored him in a barrel at their home at 94 Dole Avenue, and three days later, buried him in a shallow grave by a Woodstock service road.

At their separate trials in December of that year, Cunningham, 40, was sentenced to 35 years in prison, and Freund, 64, was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for his role. Initially, it was treated as a missing child case, drawing law enforcement agencies from multiple jurisdictions, until the body was discovered when Freund confessed.

Acosta and Polvin were indicted for allegedly failing on DCFS protocol and allowing AJ Freund and his brother to remain with the family, although signs of abuse were documented.

The trial was conducted at the county’s Woodstock courthouse from Sept. 11-15 with  McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick J. Kennally leading the prosecution. In the opening statements, Jamie Wombacher, Acosta’s defense attorney, said, “Hindsight is 20/20,” and along with Polvin’s attorney, indicated the defendants could not have known the boy’s death was a certainty.

Kenneally outlined AJ Freund’s life as a heroin-affected baby that was taken into DCFS custody, and eventually returned to the family, 18 months later, after the mother had completed a drug treatment program. A relative, who cared for the infant during that period, testified that DCFS never contacted when a Crystal Lake police officer returned the child to the parents.

Crystal Lake Police Officer Kimberly Shipbaugh testified about responding to a service call in December 2018, to find the mother crying, and two children in T-shirts and diapers.

In following Cunningham to her residence, Shipbaugh later documented, “unacceptable living conditions for children,” and a large bruise on AJ’s hip. She took Cunningham into custody for a driving violation and called DCFS for the children to be taken into custody. Acosta arrived and interviewed the mother and AJ Freund, who said the bruise was from the family dog.

Kenneally said Acosta did not follow protocol, ask for prior reports, or investigate before releasing the children to the mother, with a family friend driving them to the doctor.

“When DCFS employees, whose job it is to protect children, do not perform the recommended steps to protect children, they are endangering children,” he said. “These are not overwhelmed employees. These are two criminals who don’t give a damn.”

Shipbaugh was told by her supervisors on duty that “it was DCFS’ case now,” despite her objections. After several days, Shipbaugh contacted Acosta who told her the case was closed as the source of the bruise could not be determined.

The doctor who attended AJ Freund, Dr. Joellen Channon, said the child first demurred as to the source of the bruise. Alone with the child, Freund said, “Someone not in his family bruised him.” The boy continued that the bruise was from a belt, and that “Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

Channon felt there was evidence to place him in protective custody, as either the mother or her boyfriend had caused the injury. She “believed” Acosta was following through on not letting the boy return to the living situation. Arrangements were made for the father, Andrew Freund, to transport him, although she thought he was living separately from Cunningham.

Matthew McQuaid, representing Polovin, said the state’s witnesses were “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Despite the indictment, Acosta was allowed to keep his county board seat, during the tenure of board chairman Jack Franks.

If found guilty of the Class 3 felony charges, Acosta and Polovin could face two to five years in prison, and fines up to $25,000. They are also eligible for probation.