by Nancy Allen, Marketing and Outreach Coordinator, Gospel Justice Initiative
My hometown of Crystal Lake recently experienced one of the worst injustices of all—the abuse that led to the death of an innocent child.
Crystal Lake recently ranked 10th in the U.S. as one of the “Best Small Cities in the Country” based on quality of life by WalletHub. I’ve lived in Crystal Lake for almost three decades and would have to agree. This is a great place to live. But for a young Crystal Lake boy named AJ, this noteworthy acknowledgment couldn’t have been further from the truth. There was no quality of life for this little boy. In AJ’s 5 short years, his life was a living nightmare of abuse, all allegedly at the hands of his drug-addicted parents.
AJ went “missing” for a week, which led my city to frantically search for him. Prayer vigils were held, and blue ribbons tied around parkway trees dotted neighborhoods to honor AJ. When we learned of the gruesome details of abuse that led to AJ’s death, it sent shock waves of anger and grief through my town. A flood of angry social media comments screamed for answers to questions like, “How could parents kill their own child?” and “Why wasn’t AJ protected?”
Why the System is Failing Our Children
Why are children like AJ failing to be protected? We asked Attorney Lark Cowart of Lark Law this question. Lark has served in the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office for 14 years. Now in private practice, she has devoted a large portion of her career working in specialty courtrooms for child protection and domestic violence. We’ve worked with Lark, referring child abuse cases to her over the years. From her experience, she gives us insight as to why children are falling through the cracks:
A broken child-welfare system
Once DCFS receives a call of suspected abuse or neglect, DCFS will attempt to investigate. Often times, parents will not respond to the allegation, and will move or purposely hide to avoid being charged. The DCFS investigation report is then marked and filed as “unfounded”. In the meantime, the child is still living with the abusive parent.
The effects of the state budget impasse
Several years ago the impasse put a tremendous strain on DCFS services. 80% of DCFS cases are referred to private agencies, but when these private agencies’ budgets were slashed, the demand for services remained high. There was no money to find safe alternatives for removal. When an abusive parent was in custody, the child would be placed with their grandparent, and DCFS would close the case. There was very little follow up on these closed cases. In the meantime, the grandparent would return the child to the abusive parent once the parent was out of jail. The child was then subjected to the abuse all over again.
A lack of systemic support
Social workers and first responders need help investigating DCFS allegations. DCFS receives 200,000 calls per year. Of those, 75,037 children last year were confirmed to be neglected or abused. In a recent DCFS audit, it was revealed that 55% of the hotline calls went to a voicemail, and 65% of cases had no documentation of services to families. Managing huge caseloads is stressful, which often leads to staff burn out, high turnover, or eventually rendering some to be calloused toward their work.
Three Ways You Can Protect Children Like AJ
Another recurring question being asked by my community is, “What can we do to ensure this abuse never happens to another child again?” Attorney Lark Cowart shared a few tangible ways that we can do our part:
1) Report suspected abuse or neglect to DCFS. If you feel that something isn’t quite right, err on the side of caution and make a report to the DCFS Hotline at 800-25-ABUSE. The identity of the reporter is confidential and will not be disclosed to the person accused.
2) Train to be a court appointed special advocate. A CASA volunteer is appointed by a judge to advocate for an abused or neglected child’s best interest in court.
3) Become a foster parent. May is Foster Care Awareness Month. The need for foster parents is great. If you can’t make a long-term commitment, then consider Safe Families. Safe Families is a short-term option to fostering a child while the parent is receiving rehabilitation services in a recovery home.
Legal Ministry Rescues Families in Abusive Situations
Across northern Illinois and the country, lawyers volunteer to make a difference. I used to serve as a Client Intake Specialist. In that role, I’d receive countless calls from women who were being physically abused by their boyfriends or husbands. Hundreds of mothers reach out seeking direction on how to obtain an order of protection for themselves and their children. Many are sobbing, and you can hear the desperation in their voices. They make us promise that we won’t call them back, fearing their abusive partner or spouse will discover that they’ve called us, and then retaliate.
I always knew that domestic violence was a problem, but never imagined it to the extent that it truly is. Their stories are absolutely heart wrenching, and it’s shocking to hear what’s really going on behind closed doors. If mothers are being abused at this rate, their children are also likely just as vulnerable to the abuse.
Did you know that without legal assistance, people are 21% more likely to be abused? Legal ministries can intervene early in a case, helping clients leave an abusive situation. We can assist in filing child support and help enforce it. Lawyers can intervene when protective orders are violated. Our legal ministry centers direct clients to community resources and connect them to a support network at a local church. This in turn empowers the client to protect herself and her children, giving her the confidence she needs to leave the abusive environment.
The Ultimate Blame for Child Abuse
Of all the questions I read on social media regarding AJ’s death, one was especially disturbing-
“Where was your God?”
Often we’re quick to blame God when tragedy strikes. But I would argue that this blame is misplaced. Our enemy, the devil, is whom we should be blaming. His fingerprints are all over this unthinkable crime. Satan is out to “steal, kill, and destroy” families (John 10:10). He uses whatever tools he can (drugs in the case of AJ’s parents) to succeed in doing so.
The truth is we live in a broken, sin-sick fallen world. Parents will fail us. Child-welfare systems will fail us. But thankfully, God will never fail us. AJ is finally safe in heaven, where there is no more crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). He now has the quality of life he deserves—in the loving arms of His heavenly Father. Rest in peace, sweet little guy.
For more information on how you can partner with us to protect families, go to www.gji.org.