Attorney: Before AJ Freund’s death, Woodstock DCFS office was overworked, under-staffed

Average caseload for DCFS investigators is between 12 and 15, Carlos Acosta had 21 in 2018

Defense attorney Matthew McQuaid  and Andrew Polovin talk during cross examination of Carol Ruzicka, a retired Illinois Department of Children and Family Services administrator, on the third day of the trial for the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees Carlos Acosta and Polovin before Lake County Judge George Strickland on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 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.

Attorneys for two former child protection workers charged in connection to AJ Freund’s death challenged the state’s expert witness Wednesday who asserted in previous testimony that they made crucial mistakes that led to the boy’s 2019 death.

Rebecca Lee, an attorney for Carlos Acosta, 57, spent much of Wednesday questioning Carol Ruzicka, a former DCFS administrator who is testifying for the state as an expert witness. Among other things, Lee questioned Ruzicka about Acosta’s workload and his handling of a case filed before the Crystal Lake boy was killed by his mother.

Lee also said that there had been 123 children who had cases with the Department of Children and Family Services who have died since July 1, 2018, and AJ’s death marked the only case that lead to criminal charges against two department employees.

Acosta, of Woodstock, is the former DCFS child protection specialist who along with his former supervisor, Andrew Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, are each 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. Wednesday marked the third day of trial for both men.

They are accused of failing to take the required protective measures to protect AJ Freund after an emergency 911 call was made on Dec. 18, 2018, by a Crystal Lake Police officer who testified Monday.

At the time, the officer said the Freund home at 94 Dole Avenue was cold, “filthy” smelled of urine and feces, its kitchen floor was torn up and the ceiling was falling in. She also saw and photographed AJ who had a large bruise on his hip and a fat lip.

The DCFS investigation of alleged abuse was closed in January 2019 and classified as “unfounded.”

Just four months later, AJ was murdered. His parents – JoAnn Cunningham, 40, and Andrew Freund Sr., 64 – eventually pleaded guilty in his slaying.

Prosecutors have argued that if Acosta and Polovin had followed procedures as they were “required,” AJ’s life could have been saved.

Defense attorneys, however, have maintained that the Woodstock field office the two worked out of was under staffed and overworked.

On Wednesday, during cross examination by Lee, Ruzicka said the average case load for DCFS investigators should be between 12 and 15.

Lee pointed out that at the time, Acosta was handling 21 cases and that the Woodstock office was over mandates set by a federal consent decree. Ruzicka said she could not comment, because she did not know how many cases he had.

Lee spent most of Wednesday cross-examining Ruzicka, and dissected much of the testimony Ruzicka provided Tuesday while being questioned by McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally.

Ruzicka, who said she is being paid $200 an hour for her expert testimony, testified about several areas where she believed Acosta and Polovin failed AJ in not following mandated procedures outlined in a 500-plus page manual.

Directing Ruzicka to flip back and forth to various sections in a large binder, Lee seemingly sought to show that not all the steps, activities and levels of reporting are required in every case.

Lee asked Ruzicka about her earlier testimony in which she criticized Acosta’s quality of note-taking, reporting, photographing and marking AJ’s injuries, and level of questioning he had with AJ as well as Cunningham and Freund Sr. about drug use, discipline and mental health.

For example, Lee asked Ruzicka about her testimony that Acosta did not ask AJ specific questions about the family dog. When he was asked how AJ had gotten a bruise on his hip, the boy – with his mother’s input – claimed the dog caused it.

AJ also would provide different reasons for the bruise during later questioning saying it was from a belt or “Maybe, mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.” His mother also provided different explanations for the bruise.

Ruzicka said not digging deeper into the bruise’s cause showed a lack of critical investigative and clinical skills. Lee pushed back and said using such skills was not listed in his job requirement.

“The supervisor is only as good as the information he receives from the investigator in the field, is that a fair statement?”

—  Matthew McQuaid, defense attorney for Andrew Polovin, asked Carol Ruzicka, retired DCFS regional administrator and state's expert witness

Lee also addressed Ruzicka’s criticism of Acosta for not acquiring and reviewing police reports involving Cunningham in the months before Dec. 18, 2018.

Lee said Acosta was aware of these past cases because they were noted in DCFS reports which he reviewed.

In later testimony during further questioning from Kenneally, Ruzicka said that though Acosta had the reports of the prior cases, he still should have acquired the actual police reports which would have provided more details.

Polovin’s attorney, Matthew McQuaid also questioned Ruzicka.

McQuaid said that Polovin made notes in AJ’s file after 5:30 p.m. Dec. 18, 2018, referring to the past cases from 2013 when AJ was born with heroin in his system, and two earlier incidents in 2018.

Polovin also advised Acosta of the next steps to take, including contacting police, family members, taking photos of AJ and the house, learning more about AJ’s injuries and whether the parents practice corporal punishment, McQuaid said.

McQuaid questioned Ruzicka about the high number of cases the Woodstock office was handling during this time with just seven investigators. He also asked Ruzicka, who was a regional administrator in northern Illinois at the time of AJ’s death, if she felt any guilt. She said “no.”

McQuaid questioned Ruzicka about stress that comes with the job and the pressure employees are under to close out cases within 60 days. Ruzicka agreed there are deadlines, but said extensions can be granted. She also agreed with McQuaid’s assertion that the job often is based on judgement calls.

McQuaid said Polovin could only do his job by relying on the information provided by his investigators.

“The supervisor is only as good as the information he receives from the investigator in the field, is that a fair statement?” McQuaid asked Ruzicka.

Ruzicka replied “That is a fair statement.”

Kenneally asked if Polovin had a history of closing out cases hastily. Ruzicka said he did.

He also asked if the final report closing out AJ’s case, written by Polovin, mentioned AJ telling a doctor that maybe his mother didn’t mean to hurt him, or include the report of dog feces, urine and mice infestation in the home and that Acosta did not enlist a doctor to give a second opinion on how AJ got the bruise. She said the closing report did not include this information.

Kenneally also asked Ruzicka about a statement she made in earlier testimony.

She had said that although AJ was bruised on Dec. 18, 2018, and the house was described by a police officer as filthy and uninhabitable for children, his case did not rise to a serious level and there were no serious “red flags.”

She explained further that what she meant was that AJ’s case on that date was not equivalent to a case like an infant with a skull fracture.

The day ended with testimony from Shannon Krueger, a nurse practitioner who has examined many children who were the victims of child abuse. She has worked with Acosta and Polovin through DCFS, but said she was not called to examine AJ.

Based on the photographs showing a cluster of bruising around his hip she did not believe it was caused by a dog. She also said that bruise, along with bruising on his face and an injury to his lip “would indicate child abuse.”

If convicted on the most serious Class 3 felony Acosta and Polovin could face between two and five years in prison and fines of up to $25,000. The conviction also is probational.

Cunningham is serving 35 years for first-degree murder in AJ’s killing, while Freund Sr. received a 30-year sentence after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, concealment of a homicide and aggravated battery of a child.

The trial continues Thursday morning.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the charges to which AJ Freund’s father, Andrew Freund, pleaded guilty in connection to AJ’s death.

Have a Question about this article?