Monsters are real. And sometimes, when grownups don’t act, the monsters hurt children.
The nation watched in horror as a story about a missing Illinois 5-year-old turned into a nightmare, in which the boy’s parents allegedly brutally murdered their son, buried his body in a shallow grave and lied to the police and the public about what happened.
This innocent boy, AJ Freund, suffered a fate no one should endure. Prosecutors said the boy was forced into a cold shower for an extended period of time and struck repeatedly. This child was tortured by his parents.
His story is a catastrophic collision of two major public policy crises.
First and most important is the opioid epidemic, which is at least in part responsible for turning this little boy’s parents into the kind of people who humiliated, brutalized and allegedly murdered their own child.
AJ Freund was born with opiates in his system, which is why he spent 18 months of his life in foster care. The boy’s 60-year-old father, Andrew Freund, was diagnosed with opioid and cocaine abuse disorders, and was ordered to abstain and to continue treatment and participate in a 12-step program, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Addiction changes the way your brain works. That’s one reason why people can’t “just stop” using, or why they do things that would otherwise be unfathomable. The same day AJ’s body was found, President Donald Trump gave a speech to the nation about the proportions of the crisis we’re facing.
More than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, compared with just less than 17,000 in 1999, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Drug addiction in no way excuses what these parents did, but if we don’t recognize that it is a very real societal issue, we can’t ever hope to overcome it.
The second crisis is the failure of Illinois’ child protective services. The Department of Children and Family Services has come under fire for decades for other stories about children being left in violent and dangerous homes, where they suffered physically and mentally, and sometimes lost their lives.
The system failed AJ Freund. DCFS had been involved with the boy’s family since before he was born, according to a timeline released Friday by the agency. When it comes to keeping kids safe, the cost of failure is too high to ignore.
But how do we fix child protective services? It’s not an easy question to answer. Systems across the Midwest are overwhelmed because the drug epidemic has led to a huge spike in the number of children in care. These agencies make life-altering decisions for kids and families. Sometimes they get it right. But often, children remain in dangerous homes. In other situations, children are removed from homes where no danger exists.
Government can’t squash evil, and rules and regulations shouldn’t overreach or infringe upon people’s liberty and their ability to responsibly parent their children. But AJ’s story should be a call to action. We have to start asking what happened.
Is DCFS properly staffed? Are the men and women responsible for this difficult case work efficient and effective? Are those who are not being removed from their jobs? Is the state spending tax dollars efficiently?
On the drug side, are we making alternatives to opioid use available? Are we using available state funds appropriately or should more be shifted to prevention and treatment programs? Is state government creating the kind of economic climate that gives people more opportunities to find good-paying jobs so they can better provide for their families?
The people in charge can and should set up systems to protect the innocent. Sometimes, the only way to figure out the right thing to do is to ask questions. Lots of questions — from lots of people — can lead to meaningful change.