Rep. Wehrli takes DCFS to task at budget hearing just days after body of AJ Freund is discovered
Illinois lawmakers used a 2020 fiscal budget hearing to try to get some answers from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) about last month's tragic death of 5-year-old AJ Freund, whose parents have been charged with the boy's murder.
Freund's body was found last week in a shallow grave in the northwestern suburb of Woodstock, minutes away from the family's home in Crystal Lake. The boy had been reported missing earlier in the month by his parents, who claimed he disappeared overnight but later confessed to abusing him, waking to find him dead the next morning and then disposing of the body.
AJ had come in contact with the DCFS several times over his short life, but the agency apparently missed the signs of repeated abuse. He was the third child to die under the agency's watch since February.
During the hearing, Rep. Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville) told DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith and Associate Deputy for Child Protection Anne Gold that the agency has been failing miserably for decades — not just the months leading up to Freund's death.
"How can we ensure that we're doing everything we can for this not to happen?" Wehrli questioned. "We need to do better. Every bit of criticism the DCFS gets is earned. This is a systemic failure of a system that is not working for anyone. There are children who need your help that, after looking at this, I fear for their safety."
Smith asked the House appropriations committee for enough money to bring in 126 new staff members to help with the DCFS' understaffing problem. He added that the agency was currently in the process of hiring.
Gold, meanwhile, explained that Freund's case has prompted the agency to institute a review of subsequent oral reports for open intact cases, or cases where children are still with their family members rather than having already been placed elsewhere.
"Cases with families at home, those are our highest-risk cases," Gold said.
Wehrli was not satisfied.
"This is years and months of failure," he said. "This is highly unacceptable."
Smith assured the group that if given time to implement changes, the DCFS could prevent future tragedies.
"You do not have time," Wehrli said. "These kids don't have time. This needs to be fixed as quick as humanly possible."