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Mourners hold candles outside the home of 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund on Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Crystal Lake, Ill. Andrew's body was found in a wooded area Wednesday morning, and the boy's parents have been charged with his murder. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Randy Burton has been following the excruciating saga of AJ Freund from his home state of Texas.

Burton is a former assistant district attorney in Harris County. He founded the nonprofit Justice for Children in 1987 after prosecuting child abuse cases and watching, time and again, children returned to violent homes.

“The system fails systematically,” he told me, the day after 5-year-old AJ’s body was found buried in a shallow grave. AJ’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham, 36, and Andrew Freund, 60, face murder charges in his death.

I called Burton because I’ve followed his work for years. He’s a prolific advocate for rescuing and protecting children from abuse. His organization provides free guidance and legal services to adults who fear a child is being allowed to remain in an abusive home. Sometimes that adult is a neighbor, sometimes it’s a teacher, sometimes it’s a parent trying to protect his or her own child from another parent or relative.

I called him because I’m hungry for fresh ideas. I’m hungry for something other than after-the-fact checks and balances on a bureaucratic system tasked with an incredibly difficult job: protecting a child from monsters. Monsters who are, all too often, that child’s family. Monsters who, it must be remembered, that child loves.

Stories like AJ’s defy our understanding of family. They defy our understanding of humanity.

They are shocking in both their depravity and their frequency.

“The litany of horrible things done to small children,” Burton said, “it’s never ending.”

Investigators with DCFS had contact with AJ’s family for years, even before the boy was born with drugs in his system. The DCFS Office of Inspector General is investigating the agency’s handling of AJ’s case, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday, which it’s mandated to do in all cases of child death and injury when the family was involved with DCFS within the last year of the minor’s life.

Burton’s not impressed. Or hopeful. It’s not enough.

He pushes for wholesale changes in the way child protective service agencies approach their entire reason for being.

He advocates for a shift away from the long-time goal of keeping families together.

The notion that it’s more harmful to remove a child from a family than it is to leave a child in an abusive home, he says, is outdated and scientifically unproven. A child’s safety, he says, has to be paramount.

“The fact that children love their parents unconditionally does not mean that’s an excuse to leave them in a home where their bones are being broken or they’re being starved of they’re being raped,” Burton said. “To me, it’s just beyond comprehension how one could justify leaving a child in an environment like AJ’s.”

In 1980, The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was passed, requiring child protective services agencies to avoid unnecessary removal of children from their homes.

All too often, Burton said, that backfires.

“As we can see in this case involving AJ,” he said, “case workers make preposterous decisions and bend over backwards to leave the child in the home, under this family preservation idea.”

Child abuse, by definition, is a crime. Burton argues law enforcement should have the primary authority for receiving and investigating child abuse complaints. He would like to see federal legislation that strengthens child abuse and neglect laws. He’d like to see children who are victims of crimes treated like all other victims of crimes.

“If I’m an adult and I’ve been raped, I don’t call adult protective services,” he said. “I call the police. And they measure their response time in minutes, not days.”

His position, he said, is based on decades of watching thousands of children be murdered by their family members or guardians.

“People will say it’s easy to second guess the situation and look back at what should have been done in this case or that case,” Burton said. “I’ve got several hundred boxes of cases, field studies, stories, investigations, newspaper series from every major city — Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Houston — that have informed my opinion. I don’t say these things lightly.

“I don’t want to break up families,” he continued. “I know how important a family is and I know all families have stresses and there are times when things are better than other times. But when you look at the files I’ve looked at, when you read these investigations, when you read what happens to these children, there just simply is no excuse for leaving them in their homes.”

A Tribune investigation of DCFS files and police reports show the agency found ample evidence of squalid living conditions in AJ’s home: an “overwhelming” smell of feces, no power for weeks, damaged floors and ceilings.

AJ often had bruises. A few days before Christmas, my colleague Christy Gutowski reports, AJ told a doctor who asked about a bruise on his hip, “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

In 2016, a nationally estimated 1,750 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

I asked Burton if critics argue that removing children from abusive homes simply puts them in harm’s way inside a different home.

“I know foster care has had its own set of problems,” he said. “But there are also many great foster families out there. Are there crappy ones? Yes. And part of the problem is they’re not monitored the way they should be. I understand the resignation. But to me, any removal is better than leaving someone like AJ in that home. And, of course, it’s not just AJ. It’s thousands of children.”

An agency tasked with preserving and reunifying families, he said, can’t possibly investigate families effectively.

“It’s a professional schizophrenia,” he said. “They’re told to protect children and preserve families. When you’re dealing with felony crimes committed against children, you can not satisfy both of those. You have to protect the child first. You don’t have a choice, in my opinion, but to remove the child when there’s evidence of an arguable crime.”

He’s tired of waiting for change.

“I’ve talked about this family preservation issue till I’m blue in the face,” he said. “I’ve talked about it on ‘20/20’ and ‘Good Morning America’ and a BBC series called, ‘America’s Child Death Shame.’ I’ve written about it extensively. Whenever I get a chance, I try to remind people that there are solutions.”

His solutions are controversial. Critics will find all sorts of reasons to dismiss them out of hand.

But can we keep pretending the current system is enough? When we look at photos of AJ and reconcile that smile with the fate we know he met? When we know he died close to the two-year anniversary of the death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, the Joliet Township toddler found under a couch, whose death was ruled homicide by asphyxia? When the number of children killed by abuse nationally creeps toward 2,000 a year?

I can’t.

“If we have sufficient, admissible evidence, we need to aggressively intervene,” Burton said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t ever reunite. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have parental rights terminated. But AJ lived in a dangerous home. And I have no doubt in my mind that little boy could’ve been saved.”

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