A third Department of Children and Family Services employee who had prior contact with the Crystal Lake parents accused of murdering their 5-year-old son has been placed on desk duty.
DCFS child protection specialist Kathleen Gold was placed on “desk duty” last week, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch confirmed. The reassignment came on the heels of a federal wrongful death lawsuit that was filed Wednesday and claimed DCFS employees, including Gold, didn’t follow agency rules while investigating previous allegations against AJ’s parents. Although Gold is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, she could be added later, attorneys said.
The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that a confidential report from DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak recommended firing Gold and two more employees, Carlos Acosta and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin, who investigated reports of abuse and neglect at AJ’s home in December 2018. Acosta, who was working at the Woodstock office’s front desk Monday, also serves on the McHenry County Board. He could not be reached for comment.
Strokosch declined to speak about any potential disciplinary recommendations, but confirmed that Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith was in receipt of the inspector general’s report Thursday. DCFS would not release the report.
A Northwest Herald reporter went to the DCFS office at 113 Newell St. in Woodstock on Monday to speak with employees, but was referred to the agency’s Chicago office. An area administrator who identified herself as “Pamela” but declined to give her full name, gave the reporter the phone number of a media contact whom she said was authorized to answer questions. Less than five minutes later, as the reporter was updating the DCFS contact information in her phone, the area administrator asked the reporter to leave the building.
AJ’s parents’ JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr. have been in custody at the McHenry County jail on first-degree murder charges since April 24. That day, Freund reportedly led investigators to a rural Woodstock area where he allegedly buried his son in a shallow grave after AJ was forced into a cold shower and beaten to death.
According to the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of AJ’s estate, Cunningham was found passed out in a car as the result of a drug overdose on March 21, 2018. Later that day, Freund brought AJ and his younger brother to the Centegra Hospital – Woodstock to retrieve the keys to the car, according to the lawsuit.
A hospital employee would later report in a DCFS hotline call that both AJ and his brother appeared “dirty” and “neglected,” and were wearing their clothes inside out. The employee also noted “odd bruising” on AJ’s face, according to the lawsuit.
According to DCFS guidelines, a child protection specialist is required to meet with an alleged victim within 24 hours after a hotline call is received. Despite several recorded attempts to meet with AJ and his family, Gold didn’t conduct an in-person interview with the family until May 17, 2018. Further, there was no indication she interviewed either of the boys without their parents present, according to the lawsuit.
“On May 18, 2018, Gold, after ignoring nearly all DCFS Investigative Directives and conducting what at best might be deemed a sham investigation into the March Hotline Call, concluded that the allegations of abuse were ‘Unfounded,’” attorney Peter Flowers wrote in the federal suit.
Months later, Acosta would receive a report of abuse and neglect against AJ in December 2018 in reference to a large bruise on the child’s hip. AJ offered several explanations about how he got the bruise, but ultimately disclosed to emergency room doctor JoEllen Channon that his mother might have hit him with a belt.
After examining AJ, the doctor told Acosta she couldn’t say with certainty where the bruise originated. Acosta did not seek a second medical opinion, and took into consideration that Gold had previously determined the earlier allegation of abuse was unfounded, according to the lawsuit.
The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office has petitioned to terminate Freund and Cunningham’s parental rights over AJ’s younger brother. Another man, Daniel Nowicki, fathered a baby girl whom Cunningham gave birth to in May.
Nowicki hoped to be involved in the girl’s life, but died of a suspected overdose Sept. 29 in Indiana, authorities said.
Freund and Cunningham made brief appearances in juvenile court Monday, where the cases regarding both children were continued to 10 a.m. Jan. 13.