AJ Freund murder: DCFS worker guilty for failures before Crystal Lake boy’s death, supervisor cleared

‘This was a refusal to investigate’ obvious signs of child abuse, judge says

Carlos Acosta listens to McHenry County State's Assistant Attorney Randi Freeze as she delivers the state’s closing argument the during the trial for the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees Acosta and Andrew Polovin before Lake County Judge George Strickland on Friday, Oct. 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.

A former child protection specialist at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was found guilty Friday of child endangerment in mishandling the case of 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy AJ Freund before he was killed by his mother in 2019.

But the child welfare agency’s supervisor was acquitted of the same charges.

The guilty verdict against Carlos Acosta was handed down by Judge George Strickland after he outlined a laundry list of ways Acosta failed to ensure that AJ was protected from a dysfunctional, dangerous household.

AJ was allowed to remain with his family despite unexplained injuries found on the boy months before his murder, indications that his mother was continuing to inject heroin, a history of domestic violence and mental illness in the family, and a chaotic and filthy home.

The rare criminal prosecution of employees of Illinois’ child welfare agency went to trial last month and resumed with closing arguments Friday morning – a day before what would have been AJ’s 10th birthday.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally charged Acosta, 57, of Woodstock, and his former supervisor Andrew Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, with endangering the life of a child and health of a minor and reckless conduct.

Acosta – who also was serving on the McHenry County Board at the time AJ died in 2019 – was convicted of child endangerment Friday. Polovin was cleared of all charges.

Strickland excoriated Acosta in his long explanation of the verdict, which lasted more than an hour.

“This was a refusal to investigate,” the judge said.

He said Acosta did not take AJ to a safe place to conduct a thorough interview with him after a suspicious bruise was found; allowed AJ to be taken home by his father; and never interviewed the heroin-addicted and suicidal boyfriend of AJ’s mother, who for a time was living with the family.

Strickland said the boy – whose troubles and DCFS involvement began when he was born with opiates in his system – also was failed by Acosta because Acosta did not obtain numerous police and mental health reports documenting the chaos AJ was subjected to during his short life.

Strickland was particularly critical of a safety assessment Acosta filled out in which he said he observed no clear safety hazards involving the family.

“That report is actively dishonest and misleading,” Strickland said, adding that he “couldn’t imagine” that a judge who had all the critical information would have allowed AJ to remain with his parents if the case had been brought to court.

As for Polovin, Strickland called him something of “a phantom” in the case.

“As far as I’m concerned, you completely abdicated your responsibilities,” the judge told Polovin.

But Strickland said he couldn’t convict Polovin because it was unclear whether Polovin possessed all the facts about AJ’s dire situation before the boy was killed.

Strickland told Polovin that because he did not find him guilty, “don’t take in any way that I am exonerating you of your responsibility. ... I don’t know exactly what you knew or when you knew it.”

AJ’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., eventually pleaded guilty in the boy’s beating death and the concealment and burial of his body in a Woodstock field. They’re both now serving long prison terms.

Crystal Lake Police officer Kimberley Shipbaugh testifies during 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 Monday, Sept. 11, 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.

But prosecutors argued that AJ’s life could have been spared had DCFS officials taken proper protective measures when, on Dec. 18, 2018, an emergency call was made on his behalf when he was found to have large bruises and other injuries.

A police officer also testified to the “filthy” conditions in the family’s home, where the kitchen flooring was torn up, the ceiling was falling in and there was a strong smell of feces and urine, as well as dog feces and urine visible on the floor.

Defense attorneys argued that the DCFS office was understaffed, causing high caseloads for overworked employees, and that they shouldn’t be criminally penalized for events they could not predict or control.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Acosta’s attorney Jamie Wombacher said in opening statements.

Prayer cards for AJ Freund, 5, sit on a table next to the visitor guestbook May 3, 2019, at Davenport Funeral Home in Crystal Lake.

That comment was the first thing prosecutor Randi Freese addressed during her closing arguments Friday.

“This is not just a case of hindsight is 20/20 or two people who were bad at their job. This has to be one of the most predictable, one of the most foreseeable, but one of the most preventable cases in DCFS history,” Freese said.

If not for the actions of Polovin and Acosta, “AJ Freund would be celebrating his 10th birthday tomorrow,” Freese said, adding that the defendants were entrusted with the most important job, and they let AJ go “back into the arms of a violent, drug-addicted, dysfunctional mother without doing a single thing to protect him.”

The judge on Friday said he agreed that DCFS caseloads are heavy, and he noted the utmost importance of the work the agency does.

But Strickland said heavy caseloads can’t explain or justify Acosta’s failures to follow up on numerous red flags or to seek assistance available to him.

He said Acosta investigated AJ’s December case in a “vacuum.”

“There were so many recurrable things that existed in this house,” Strickland said, adding that if the investigation was handled properly, “at a minimum, there would be a guardian ad litem, the eyes and ears,” in the house, and AJ would have been protected.

“A child living in a home where mom is a heroin addict and is relapsing, and is allowing her paramour who is a heroin addict to come into the house ... that is not healthy,” the judge said. “It is not just about the injuries to AJ. It’s about the entire life of this family.”

After AJ told a doctor that “maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” the judge said it would have been “common sense to anyone” to follow up on that statement and interview Cunningham’s boyfriend, but that didn’t happen.

Strickland walked through the boy’s sad life, including being born with opiates in his system and being removed for a long stretch from his parents. But, ultimately, despite multiple points of contact and many “disturbing” indications of trouble at home, “nobody followed up.”

After the initial intervention at AJ’s birth, the judge said, “nothing, for the most part, was done. We filled out a couple of forms.”

Strickland also noted a specific image he saw of AJ with his blonde hair shaved off and recounted a doctor’s testimony from trial.

The doctor said shaving off someone’s hair “is common when someone is being tortured because that is taking away his dignity. That was another thing that was done here,” Strickland said. “He was failed by the adults in his life. He died. He was tortured to death. He deserved due process. AJ never got due process from DCFS. He died suffering, and I hold the two of you and DCFS responsible for that.”

Strickland was brought in from Lake County to oversee the trial. Polovin and Acosta declined their right to a jury trial, so Strickland decided the verdict.

Defense attorneys chose to call no witnesses after the prosecution rested their case last month.

But in her closing arguments, Acosta’s attorney Rebecca Lee said elements of the case “became obvious” after the fact that “were not obvious at the time. ... The death of AJ was tragic, but the people responsible are in prison.”

“We heard during trial what happened four months prior but with more information,” she said. “Do we keep protective care? Do we contact the state’s attorney’s office? Who do I interview? What do I do first? What weight do I assign to any of these facts? The state is asking to assign criminal responsibility to these two, and it is unreasonable and scapegoating. [It is] Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Only four months after DCFS allowed the protective care of AJ to lapse, Cunningham beat AJ and made him stand in a freezing shower. She put him to bed wet, cold and naked.

The child died, and his father concealed his body in the basement of their home for about three days before burying him in a shallow grave in a field near power lines in Woodstock, according to courtroom testimony.

Before the night she killed him, Cunningham recorded herself abusing and taunting her son.

The judge said Friday that it was “haunting” to “watch that child suffer at the hands of that sadistic woman. It’s not something I will ever forget.”

That she taped it, he said, showed how much she was “enjoying” it.

Cunningham is serving 35 years in prison 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.

At a news conference after the verdict, Kenneally said he is “absolutely thrilled with the verdict.”

“We always felt Carlos shared the brunt” of the failures that led to AJ’s death, Kenneally said, adding that he hopes the verdict brings “a shift in the landscape.”

“There is a significant deficit in the ability of DCFS to investigate these cases and get us accurate information and keep children safe,” Kenneally said. “I have always been concerned with the accountability of DCFS.”

He said he hopes that in bringing felony charges against Acosta and Polovin, it is clear that “if DCFS isn’t going to hold you accountable, then the law will,” referring to future cases that are investigated in this way and lead to a tragedy.

Kenneally said he hopes that “some minor good has come from that unspeakable tragedy.”

“There were so many opportunities for somebody to come and help that kid and save that kid’s life,” Kenneally said. “We were not going to let that slide.”

Because Acosta could be eligible for extended term sentencing due to AJ’s age, Acosta could face two to 10 years in prison at sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled. He also could be placed on probation.