Did the system fail an individual or did individuals fail the system?
It’s impossible to cleanly distill something so unspeakably tragic as the short life of AJ Freund, but an ongoing McHenry County trial aims to assign additional blame for the many terrible events that ended in the 5-year-old’s death in 2019.
For full, painful background, visit shawlocal.com/tags/aj-freund. The present issue is the felony charges facing a Department of Children and Family Services child protection specialist and his supervisor. The state is arguing that had the men followed protocol, Freund might not be one of the 123 children with DCFS cases who have died since July 1, 2018.
That theory essentially posits the individual workers failed the state system. But the defense position appears to be the system failed the workers by understaffing and overworking the Woodstock DCFS office. It’s not a difficult case to make, given readily available data about DCFS and state government as a whole, especially during the budget stalemates that came to define the last decade.
No matter the outcome of this trial, a little boy is dead. He was born with heroin in his system and lived a tormented life. Each parent is serving at least 30 years in prison for their roles in his death. If the state proves its case, its two workers could face prison and fines. Those financial penalties wouldn’t be enough to offset the costs of incarceration, so taxpayers figure to be on the hook. Even if the sentence ends up being probational there are human resources costs, and what’s that we said about overworked and understaffed?
If the DCFS workers are found not guilty, logic holds the state itself should somehow be held accountable for failing its employees. But what would that entail? Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert filed a federal class action against DCFS in December 2018. Problems persist, to put it mildly.
During the 2022 gubernatorial campaign Republican primary, candidates repeatedly sought termination of DCFS Director Marc Smith, yet there were precious few suggestions about changing the agency to deliver acceptable results.
Smith is the 14th person to lead DCFS on an acting or permanent basis since April 2003. The average director tenure since 1964 is about two years. Smith has been permanent director since his Senate confirmation in June 2021, but the context of his tenure indicts the entire system:
Gov. JB Pritzker named Smith the acting director on April 15, 2019, the day AJ Freund died in his Crystal Lake home. It was nearly seven years after the first DCFS call about his mother abusing prescription drugs and neglecting a foster child, the first of dozens of interactions with the family.
The system failed. We’re all responsible.