June 11, 2024

The Tragic Story of AJ Freund: How DCFS Failed to Protect a Child from Abuse and Neglect

AJ Freund, a 5-year-old child, was found dead in a shallow grave after enduring years of abuse and neglect, despite multiple hotline calls to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The conviction of a former DCFS child protection specialist raises questions about the agency’s ability to protect vulnerable children.   

Former DCFS Child Protection Specialist Sentenced 

A McHenry County judge sentenced a former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) child protection specialist, Carlos Acosta, to six months in jail, 30 months of probation, 200 hours of volunteer service, and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine to the McHenry County Children’s Advocacy Center. About a year ago, Acosta was convicted of endangering the life and health of a child after 5-year-old AJ Freund was found in a shallow grave in 2019. DCFS had received at least ten hotline calls concerning the care the child’s parents were giving, yet DCFS failed to save AJ from the abuse that led to his death.   

A Timeline of Neglect and Abuse 

In 2013, AJ Freund was born with opiates in his system, prompting a hospital social worker to notify DCFS. In December 2018, police notified DCFS of a large bruise on AJ’s hip. AJ told the doctor, “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.” However, DCFS sent AJ home from the hospital, later closing the investigation, finding no abuse due to lack of evidence.   

In March 2019, during a search of deleted files on AJ’s mother’s cellphone, police found a two-minute video that showed a badly injured AJ on a bare, urine-soaked mattress in a crib. He is nude except for small bandages around his wrists and circling his hips. AJ’s mother, who recorded the video, is heard verbally berating him for wetting the bed. After AJ removes an ice pack from his face, he is seen to have deep red bruising around his eyes and on his neck and clavicle area. DCFS takes no action. A little over a month later, AJ’s father reported the child missing to the police. Shortly after, police find AJ’s body covered in plastic, lying in a shallow grave. An autopsy revealed that AJ died from injuries to his skull and brain due to multiple blunt-force injuries. Prosecutors later alleged that the boy was killed on April 15.  

Legal Action Against DCFS 

Roughly six months later, AJ’s estate filed a federal lawsuit against a DCFS investigator and the supervisor who handled the final hotline complaint regarding AJ’s hip bruise and filthy home. The lawsuit named AJ’s siblings his legal heirs and alleged the employees showed an “inhumane indifference to AJ’s safety” in handling the December 2018 hotline call.  

How You Can Help Protect Children from Abuse and Neglect 

Unfortunately, AJ’s story is not uncommon.  Too often, DCFS lets children down by failing to act in situations involving abuse and neglect, whether the child is with family or placed in a home by DCFS.    

If you suspect that a child has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed by abuse or neglect, whether at home or in any institutional placement or setting  a report it online at https://childabuse.illinois.gov. In an emergency, call the 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline at 800-25-ABUSE (800-252-2873). If you believe a child is in immediate danger of harm, call 911 first. Also, contact Julianna Walo of Justice for Kids to learn how you can help protect the child and hold those responsible accountable for their actions. Together, we can work to ensure that no more children suffer the same tragic fate as AJ Freund. 

To learn more about Justice for Kids, visit us at www.JusticeForKids.com

Julianna B. Walo, Esq.
Attorney, Justice for Kids
Kelley Kronenberg-Chicago, IL
754-888-KIDS (5437)