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Display calls attention to plight of children under DCFS watch

‘These are children, not missed opportunities’

A display of 347 pairs of children's shoes at the Illinois Capitol Thursday aimed to call attention to the plight of abused children. The number represents the children who died from 2019 through 2021 though despite having had some contact with DCFS

A McHenry County child welfare advocacy group created a display of children’s shoes in the Statehouse on Thursday to bring awareness of child abuse to legislators.

Tiny shoes for going to church, another pair of sandals for when the sun is out, gym shoes for playing in the park, ballet shoes and snow boots were among the types of shoes included among the 347 pairs neatly laid out in the Capitol rotunda. The number represents the children who died from 2019 through 2021 despite having had contact with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The display was organized by Crystal Lake resident Tracy Kotzman, who founded Roar for AJ after the death of 5-year-old AJ Freund at the hands of his parents in 2019. The family was being monitored by DCFS at the time.

Addressing a group of Republican senators viewing the display Thursday, Kotzman said, “DCFS calls [children who have died] ‘missed opportunities,’ These are children, not missed opportunities.”

April 15 will mark three years since AJ’s death. His parents are both serving prison terms for their roles in his killing. Two DCFS agents are still facing child endangerment charges in the case.

Roar for AJ calls for accountability in his case and for change in the state’s child welfare system.

State Rep. Steven Reick, a Woodstock Republican who viewed the display, said he’s reminded frequently of AJ, who was found buried in a shallow grave off a dirt road near his Crystal Lake home.

“I think the [display] is a silent reminder of the failures of DCFS,” he said, “and the problems we have getting children out of dangerous environments and into safe and loving homes where they can actually grow up to be adults without having the trauma of child abuse.”

Reick is among a number of legislators including state Sen. Craig Wilcox, a McHenry Republican, and state Rep. Tom Weber, a Lake Villa Republican, who have introduced legislation aiming to reform DCFS.