A former DCFS worker faces up to 10 years in prison but could also get probation after a judge found him guilty of mishandling abuse investigations of AJ Freund before his murder.
Carlos J. Acosta, 57, of Woodstock, and Andrew R. Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, were both charged in September 2020 with two counts of endangering the life of a child causing death, a Class 3 felony, and one count of reckless conduct causing great bodily harm, a Class 4 felony.
Lake County Judge George Strickland announced his verdict on October 13 after closing arguments in the trial concluded.
He found Acosta guilty of two counts of child endangerment and not guilty of his third charge of reckless conduct.
Strickland said he found Acosta was not a reliable reporter of what he was doing. “He makes material omissions and I believe he did so on purpose where he would put an innocuous or benign reason for something happening he did and omitted what I concern the very obvious facts of this case.”
The judge found Polovin not guilty of all three of his charges.
Strickland outlined numerous steps that the DCFS workers failed to take in their investigation and several parts that they ignored or failed to further investigate.
A grand jury indictment in 2020 charged Acosta, a DCFS child protection specialist, and Polovin, a DCFS child protection supervisor, with “not acting in good faith” within their official capacities.
The indictment said the two, in a “willful or wanton manner,” knowingly caused or permitted the life or health of Andrew Freund Jr. to be endangered and that was the proximate cause of the boy’s death.
Freund Jr., who was five years old and resided in Crystal Lake, was murdered in 2019 by his mother, JoAnn Cunningham.
A joint trial for Acosta and Polovin, who both pleaded not guilty to their charges, began on September 11.
Defense attorneys admitted additional evidence before announcing Acosta and Polovin rest their cases — electing not to testify — on the fifth day of the trial.
Before giving his verdict, Strickland said DCFS workers have a hard job because their job “is not math” and there is not always a clear right or wrong decision. However, the judge said DCFS employees do not have immunity.
Strickland told Polovin that he could not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt because he did not know what exactly Polovin knew in the AJ Freund investigation and when he knew it.
Despite the not-guilty verdict, the judge told Polovin that he “completely abdicated” his responsibility in the case.
“He was failed by the adults in his life. 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 it,” Strickland said at the end of the trial earlier this month.
Pamela Wells, a staff attorney for the Illinois Office of the State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, testified last month that she believed AJ would not have been returned to his parents by April 15, 2019, when he was killed, if DCFS had taken protective custody of AJ when they responded in December 2018 to investigate a large bruise found on the boy.
AJ told an emergency room doctor, who was examining the bruise, that he had been hit or spanked before.
“I had asked with what, and he said a belt, I asked him if that is what made the mark, and he said yes,” Dr. JoEllen Channon, who works at Northwestern Medicine Hospital Woodstock, testified.
AJ then told the doctor, “Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” Channon said.
The doctor said she was 100% certain that protective custody could be maintained over AJ because of the evidence indicating his mother, JoAnn Cunningham, was the abuser.
DCFS closed the case after attributing the bruising to the family dog, despite AJ’s statement to the doctor.
“You don’t leave the child in the situation to be injured again while you figure it out,” Wells said.
Wells explained that the court would very likely have granted protective custody of AJ after the bruising incident.
The attorney said that even if AJ had eventually been returned home after the incident, there would have been several conditions in place ordered by the court.
Those conditions, such as random drug tests for the parents and random check-ins at the Freund home, would have disrupted the possibility that further abuse would have occurred, Wells said.
“The parents would have been less likely to abuse him — number one. And number two, if that abuse had been ongoing they would have been able to see it and there would have been later hearings to remove him from the home,” Wells said.
Misty Marinier, the executive director at the McHenry County Child Advocacy Center and a former Algonquin police officer, testified that AJ’s injury would have qualified for an interview at the child advocacy center but DCFS never contacted the center.
“I believe that had any of those been done, AJ would not have been tortured to death,” Dr. Demetra Soter, who is a pediatrician with a specialty in child abuse, testified, referring to DCFS taking intervention months before AJ’s death.
Attorneys for Polovin and Acosta argued they were overworked with cases and needed more staff.
“When your job is to protect children and you don’t do that job because you are lazy and you are heartless, you are necessarily and by definition endangering children,” Kenneally said during opening statements.
Acosta faces two to 10 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections but could also be sentenced to probation, Kenneally told Lake and McHenry County Scanner.
A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled yet but a status of sentencing hearing is scheduled for December 13.
AJ’s parents, Andrew Freund Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, were both charged with first-degree murder on April 24, 2019, after an almost week-long search for the child.
Police found the young boy’s body buried in a shallow grave in a field near Woodstock.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is serving 35 years in the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois.
Andrew Freund Sr. pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal to aggravated battery to a child, a Class X felony, involuntary manslaughter, a Class 3 felony, and concealing a homicidal death, a Class 3 felony. He is serving 30 years in prison.