MCHENRY COUNTY, Ill. — The trial for two former Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) workers accused of child endangerment entered its fourth day Thursday.
Charges were filed against the pair in Sept. 2020, stemming from the April 2019 death of five-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund of Crystal Lake. Andrew Polovin and Carlos Acosta are accused of having known the child’s life was in danger four months earlier, yet not taking the right steps to ensure the situation didn’t worsen.
Late Thursday afternoon the prosecution rested its case in the joint trial after calling several more witnesses and experts to the stand to testify.
Crystal Lake Police Department patrol sergeant David Eitel was the first person called Thursday. He was asked about video evidence obtained through a search warrant from a Dropbox account belonging to AJ’s mother.
Eitel testified that during the investigation into the missing persons case involving AJ, which eventually turned into a homicide investigation, he located multiple videos from March 2019 depicting the boy with injuries.
“It can’t get any worse for you. This is about as bad as it gets,” Cunningham could be heard saying to AJ on one of those videos.
Thursday afternoon, several videos were presented to the judge presiding over the case, but only the judge was able to see the screen, with others in the courtroom hearing audio only.
“All’s I did was got this on tape for your dad to see,” Cunningham could be heard saying to AJ in one video played to the court. “Why do you have to make me mad? Tell me why.”
AJ’s whimpers could be heard as Cunningham continued to berate and question the boy repeatedly throughout the videos. She accused him of playing the “poor victim” and asked who he was going to “run to” to get her in trouble.
“I won’t go to nobody,” AJ can be heard saying back to his mother, who responded, “Then how are you going to get me in trouble?”
Several others were also called to the stand Thursday, including attorneys with decades of experience in child abuse and neglect cases, a relative who fostered AJ as an infant, a doctor, and former prosecutor with the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Throughout the trial prosecutors have maintained that caseworkers should have taken action months earlier when they received information in Dec. 2018 from police, who called the DCFS hotline regarding a bruise on AJ’s hip. While the child and his mother blamed the bruise on being pawed by a dog, the child also told a doctor, “maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”
Two child abuse experts with the Children’s Advocacy Center in McHenry County testified on Wednesday, but were not allowed to be recorded on video. They said the bruise seen on AJ’s hip was unlikely to have been caused by a dog, also noting four other bruises on his torso.
Prosecutors have argued, if the correct steps were taken, the child’s death may have been prevented. At the same time, the defense has remained steadfast in their arguments that his injury wasn’t severe enough to keep him in protective custody.
That conversation came up again Thursday as the state called on expert witness Pamela Wells, a staff attorney with the Illinois Office of the State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor. Throughout her career, Wells served as an assistant state’s attorney at various levels and has extensive experience in prosecuting cases of child abuse and neglect.
Wells testified on the procedure involving juvenile abuse and neglect cases, particularly DCFS’ involvement in them, and was asked several questions about her expert opinion on the case. While she was not involved in the case directly, Wells told the court she reviewed the statement of facts, reports, and other files in the case.
When asked by prosecutors whether she believed there was sufficient enough evidence for a petition to be filed in Dec. 2018, Wells said, “absolutely.”
She also told the court she believed at that time, matters appeared to have escalated enough to warrant a temporary custody hearing, while also citing allegations investigated months prior, in March 2018, where a hospital social worker called the DCFS hotline after observing bruising on AJ’s face.
Wells was asked by the prosecution whether she believed the child would have been returned to the home prior to April 15, 2019 if the steps were taken in Dec. to notify the court.
“I do not believe so,” Wells responded.
She was cross-examined briefly by the defense before the state called attorney Julia Almeida to the stand.
Almeida spent most of her career at the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office, and was also involved in 2013, when AJ tested positive for heroin at birth and was legally removed from his mother’s care.
When asked whether she was contacted by Acosta or Polovin regarding suspicions or reports of abuse or neglect involving five-year-old AJ, Almeida said she was not. When asked, more specifically, whether she was contacted about either the March or Dec. 2018 incidents, she said, she was not.
“I learned of the two incidents on Good Friday — the morning of 2019,” Almeida told the court.
Almeida testified, had she been aware of the incident in Dec. 2018, she would have filed a petition. She did not answer directly whether she believes AJ would still be alive had she been notified, instead, she told the court it would have kickstarted a process to help protect him and make sure the situation didn’t worsen.
“The filing of the petition in juvenile court convenes the village,” said Almeida. “That team would have kicked in at the time of the filing and would have been there on the very first court date and reporting back to the attorneys what they observed. It’s not a back-end analysis; it happens at the very first court date.”
The bench trial began on Monday with the McHenry County State’s Attorney providing an opening statement for the prosecution, and separate attorneys providing statements for each of the defendants. It is expected to take about a week.