AJ Freund’s death ‘preventable’ if rules followed, expert says

Day 2 of the trial of Carlos Acosta and Andrew Polovin focuses on DCFS training manual

Carol Ruzicka, a retired Illinois Department of Children and Family Services supervisor, testifies during the second day of the trial for the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees Carlos Acosta and Andrew Polovin before Lake County Judge George Strickland on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, at the McHenry County Courthouse. Acosta, 57, of Woodstock, and Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, each are charged with two counts of endangering the life of a child and health of a minor, Class 3 felonies, and one count of reckless conduct, a Class 4 felony, related to their handling of the AJ Freund case.

A former child protective specialist and his supervisor were “ultimately responsible” for the safety of a 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy killed by his parents in April 2019, a retired Illinois Children and Family Services administrator said Tuesday.

Testimony from Carol Ruzicka, the state’s expert witness, took up the second day of the trial of Carlos Acosta and Andrew Polovin, who were charged criminally in the death of AJ Freund.

Acosta, 57, of Woodstock, and Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, each are charged with two counts of endangering the life of a child and health of a minor, Class 3 felonies, and one count of reckless conduct, a Class 4 felony, related to their handling of the child’s case.

Defense attorneys have argued that the child welfare agency’s Woodstock field office, by which AJ’s case was handled, was “overwhelmingly overworked and understaffed.”

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally spent almost three hours painstakingly reading through pages of a DCFS training manual referred to as the Procedures 300 or P300.

Kenneally questioned Ruzicka on whether Acosta or Polovin followed a number of rules listed in the manual after an emergency call was made by a Crystal Lake police officer to DCFS out of concern for the welfare of AJ and his 3-year-old brother Oct. 18, 2018.

Officer Kimberley Shipbaugh testified Monday that she made the call after seeing the “filthy” home they lived in along Dole Avenue and seeing AJ’s bruise and fat lip.

To each question, Ruzicka said neither Acosta nor Polovin did what they were trained and required to do as part of their jobs in protecting AJ.

When Kenneally asked Ruzicka whether AJ would have been killed had the procedures been followed and services were provided, she replied, “I do not believe he would have been.”

Among the missteps in the investigation was the failure to provide a special forensic interviewer to properly question AJ about his bruise and fat lip and how he was disciplined at home.

Acosta failed in not providing the required full body chart marking all of AJ’s injuries.

Acosta also did not arrange for a physician to offer a second opinion as to how the bruise was caused after an emergency room doctor who saw AJ said she could not provide an answer.

“I do not believe he would have been.”

—  Carol Ruzicka, retired DCFS administrator, when asked if AJ Freund would have been killed if procedures had been followed

Additionally, Polovin, who had been a supervisor on past cases involving AJ, failed in not requiring Acosta to do so, Ruzicka said.

Acosta also failed to properly interview AJ’s father, Andrew Freund Sr.; mother, JoAnn Cunningham; and her boyfriend, Daniel Nowicki, who at one point lived in the home.

Freund Sr., 64, and Cunningham, 40, eventually admitted to their roles in AJ’s death and each are serving prison terms. Nowicki has since died and was never charged in connection with AJ’s death.

In court, Kenneally read a text message exchange between Acosta and Polovin to Ruzicka relative to AJ’s bruise.

Acosta sent a picture of the bruise to Polovin and said AJ said it was caused by the dog.

Polovin responded, “Yikes, that looks nasty, but if that is what the kid says.”

AJ had provided different reasons for how the bruise happened, including the family dog, a belt and someone who is not in his family. He also told the emergency room doctor, “Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

Ruzicka said Acosta failed in not following procedure and obtaining and reviewing past DCFS reports that night documenting a history of alleged abuse and neglect dating back to AJ’s birth in 2013, when he was born addicted to heroin.

Acosta also did not acquire or review past police reports involving Cunningham’s arrests, drug abuse, mental health issues and suicidal ideations requiring hospitalizations. He should have reviewed past police and medical reports relating to the drug use and criminal history of Freund and Nowicki as well, Ruzicka said.

Additionally, Acosta failed in asking Cunningham about her drug use and did not require her to take a drug test Dec. 18, according to the testimony. And he did not ensure that a family friend – who picked up her and her two children from the police department that night to go to the emergency room – was safe to leave with, Ruzicka testified.

Other failures she outlined included allowing the protective custody of AJ and his brother, initiated by police that night, to lapse, and not going to the hospital with them, she said.

The protocols DCFS workers are “required” to follow with each case, such as looking up police reports and past DCFS cases, are designed to provide case managers and supervisors with information that will help “focus decision-making” to quickly determine whether a child is safe, she said.

Had Acosta reviewed police reports, as he is required to do, he would have seen that in March 2018 Cunningham was found passed out in a car and with needle marks all over her body, presumably from using heroin, and she was hospitalized. In July 2018, she was hospitalized again after allegedly trying to kill herself by walking into traffic, Kenneally said.

Ruzicka considered AJ’s bruises “highly suspicious ... over multiple planes of his body,” and DCFS employees are trained to recognize this and act appropriately, she said.

On cross-examination, Acosta’s attorney Rebecca Lee challenged Ruzicka’s testimony.

Lee also said some of the rules and procedures that Ruzicka gave expert testimony on were not the same rules in the P300 on Dec. 18, 2018.

This topic led to a delay in the bench trial beginning Tuesday morning, when attorneys took a recess to review the manual and evidence to be considered by Lake County Judge George Strickland.

Lee also asked, based on the P300, if a child with a bruise alone is enough to satisfy an allegation of abuse or raises to the level of a serious harm case, to which Ruzicka said no.

Lee questioned whether AJ had been asked too many times about the bruise, which could result in different stories.

The next day, Acosta visited AJ’s home and reported the boys looked OK and the house was messy and cluttered, but he did not note “atrocious” conditions and the presence of feces and urine, as police had the day before.

He said in a report that he asked Freund if he used corporal punishment on the boys for discipline. Freund answered no and said they only spanked with an open hand over clothing. He also said he worked long hours, often leaving the boys with Cunningham.

The case was closed Jan. 4, 2019, and considered “unfounded,” Ruzicka said.

On the evening of April 14, 2019, AJ was beaten and made to stand in a cold shower before being put to bed cold, wet and naked. His father made a false 911 call the next morning, leading the community and multiple police agencies on a search throughout the county.

AJ’s body was found about a week later wrapped in plastic garbage bags in a shallow grave in Woodstock.

The trial resumes Wednesday morning.

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