July 17, 2024

Eye On Illinois: Locking up ex-DCFS investigator isn’t going to save troubled agency

There are no winners.

Shaw Local News Network’s Amanda Marrazzo reported last week on the sentencing of a former Department of Children and Family Services investigator, the latest development in the long, sad story of AJ Freund, whose tragic death at age 5 in 2019 made him the unfortunate poster child for a deeply broken state agency. (For full, painful background, visit shawlocal.com/tags/aj-freund.)

When exploring the trial in September, I wrote the issue was a question of the system failing an individual or individuals failing the system. But Marrazzo’s excellent account underscores the uncomfortable truth that no courtroom outcome could provide real closure or satisfaction.

In the legal sense, there was a victor, as McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally successfully argued failure to follow protocol contributed to Freund’s death. More than 120 children with DCFS cases have died since July 1, 2018, and this kind of conviction is exceedingly rare. But using one arm of the government to order someone from another into six months of incarceration and 30 months of probation doesn’t do anything for a boy who died five years ago, nor does it directly force essential reforms.

Consider the words of Alex Medina, who said he’s worked for DCFS for three decades. Setting aside hyperbolic branding of the prosecution as a “witch hunt,” Medina accurately skewered his superiors for allowing investigators to work caseloads beyond the legal maximum, stressing the human impact.

This is not, after all, being asked to deal with too many people trying to renew their vehicle registrations or check fishing and hunting permits. DCFS investigators encounter trauma that would put most average people into counseling, then get up and witness a fresh new hell the next day. They often work 12-hour days, not counting being on call. Two have been killed at work since 2018. That any investigator lasts a week on the job is a minor miracle, to say nothing of years of dedicated service.

“Accountability for many is a hard thing to accept, especially those operating so long with impunity,” Kenneally later said in response, but punishment for one individual – no matter how appropriate – doesn’t address the system itself. If there is impunity, it rests much higher on the organizational chart and implicates the executive and legislative branches which have failed to successfully reform a broken DCFS.

It would be wrong to say no one has tried. There has been more money, tougher laws, new administrators. But none of those efforts have been sufficient, and putting one man behind bars is not going to meaningfully move that needle.

The sentence might have been a wake-up call, but it only matters if the right people – those with significant power – actually heed the alarm.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on X @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.