A former child welfare worker who investigated a bruise on AJ Freund’s hip four months before the 5-year-old boy was beaten to death by his parents, pleaded not guilty Thursday to felony child endangerment and reckless conduct.
Former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employee Carlos Acosta appeared in court Thursday morning beside his attorney, Rebecca Lee. After hearing the judge read aloud details from the Sept. 10 grand jury indictment, Acosta pleaded not guilty to all counts.
“I look forward to a speedy trial,” Acosta told the Northwest Herald after court Thursday.
Lee could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. She has not formally entered a speedy trial demand.
In Illinois, prosecutors have 120 days to bring a case to trial once a defendant in custody invokes his or her right to a speedy trial. That window extends to 160 days for defendants who are out on bond.
Raising concern of a possible appearance of impropriety, Wilbrandt paused before allowing Acosta to enter his plea.
Before Wilbrandt became a judge in 2006, his law firm represented the McHenry County Latino Coalition. Acosta later was named the coalition’s president and left the organization in 2009.
Wilbrandt clarified that he never personally represented Acosta. Still, Wilbrandt brought his concern to the attention of 22nd Judicial Circuit Chief Judge James Cowlin. Both judges concluded there was no conflict, Wilbrandt said.
Acosta’s attorney and McHenry County Assistant State’s Attorney Randi Freese also agreed that Wilbrandt didn’t need to recuse himself from the case, which was continued to Nov. 5.
Prosecutors charged Acosta just as the criminal cases against AJ's parents were winding to an end. McHenry County sheriff's deputies arrested Acosta and his former DCFS supervisor, Andrew Polovin, on Sept. 10. Each of the men is charged with two felony counts of endangering the life of a child and one felony count of reckless conduct. Acosta and Polovin, who also has pleaded not guilty, were released from the county jail after posting bond Sept. 10.
The charges stem from a December 2018 investigation of a large bruise on AJ’s hip. Although DCFS deemed the case unfounded in February 2019, the investigation came back into question after AJ’s April 15, 2019, death.
According to a search warrant affidavit referencing Acosta and Polovin, the two are accused of allowing protective custody of AJ to lapse before conducting a proper investigation after a Crystal Lake police officer reported seeing the bruise.
Polovin also is accused of omitting a corresponding Crystal Lake police report, medical records and a home safety checklist from AJ’s December 2018 file, according to the affidavit.
Both Polovin and Acosta were placed on desk duty in April 2019 after AJ was reported missing on April 18. The former employees were fired from DCFS in December.
Acosta previously told the Northwest Herald that he followed DCFS policies while conducting the 2018 investigation. To make their case, prosecutors would have to show that Acosta, 54, and Polovin, 48, were not only neglectful and endangered AJ but that it was their activity or lack thereof that caused the child's death, attorneys who are not associated with the case have said.
AJ's mother, JoAnn Cunningham, 37, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on Dec. 5 in connection with the boy's death. She was sentenced in July to 35 years in prison.
AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr., pleaded guilty on Sept. 18 to aggravated battery of a child, involuntary manslaughter and concealment of a homicidal death. The 61-year-old Crystal Lake man was sentenced to 30 years in prison but could serve as few as 18 years under the state's sentencing laws.