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System Failure: 123 children died within a year of contact with DCFS, Inspector General offers changes

'We, Illinois, must do better,' report states

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Inspector General's annual report documents the death of 123 children who came into contact with DCFS within 12 months of their death, and begins with a concise message for the state.

"We, Illinois, must do better," Meryl Paniak, the department's inspector general states in the report.

"As I submit this report, I am disheartened that many of the problems I identify here have been identified before, both by me and my predecessor. I recently reviewed a 2004 article which addressed the same child welfare issues I highlight in this report," Paniak writes.

This annual report covers the time period from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. The report, which is given to the governor and the Illinois General Assembly, highlights some of the main issues in child welfare that have lingered for years.

Those issues include: Children killed after DCFS left them with abusive parents or their partners, children taken from their parents to sleep on the floors in DCFS offices, children kept beyond medical necessity in psychiatric hospitals (even earlier, in 1996, a neglect petition was filed against DCFS for leaving children in psych hospitals when they were ready for discharge), lack of foster homes and services for children and families whose first language is not English, and investigators who take shortcuts that lead to tragedy.

Specifically, the report cites the April 2019 death of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake. Freund's mother, JoAnn Cunningham, pleaded guilty to Freund's murder. AJ's father, Andrew Freund, remains in jail awaiting trial.

DCFS has faced heavy criticism for its handling of the Freund case, including a December 2018 contact when AJ Freund had a large bruise on his hip and later told a doctor it might have been his mother who hit him.

"The death of AJ Freund, like the death of Joseph Wallace which led to the creation of the OIG, is emblematic of DCFS’s failure to look beyond the current crisis to consider the entire history of the family," the report states, referencing the 1993 death of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace, who was killed by his mentally ill mother who had repeatedly regained custody despite warning signs that she would hurt her son.

"In Wallace, investigators ignored the mother’s long history of physical abuse and profound mental illness. In Freund, investigators ignored the parents’ long history of addiction, the mother’s recent relapse, and the parents’ isolation of the children from caring relatives and day care providers."

Of the 123 deaths reviewed by the inspector general, 37 were deemed accidental, 34 were "natural," 24 were ruled a homicide, 7 were suicide and the cause of death in 21 was undetermined.

In the report's systemic recommendations, the inspector general wrote DCFS should review its practice of requesting law enforcement to take protective custody of children victims of alleged abuse for interviewing purposes.

"Let’s not continue making the same mistakes which led to the deaths of Joseph Wallace, AJ Freund and so many other children in Illinois," the report states. "Let’s use what we know to decrease the number of unnecessary deaths of Illinois children in the coming year."

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