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Nobody looked out for A.J.

When top state officials discuss the need to invest more resources into the Department of Children and Family Services to produce better results, people, generally speaking, understand why.

Assigned a terribly difficult job — protecting children and families from harm within their homes — DCFS employees find themselves overwhelmed with huge responsibilities and terrible problems.

But all the resources in the world can’t protect against the incompetence and indifference that resulted in the death of 5-year-old Andrew “A.J.” Freund of Crystal Lake earlier this year.

His death was a shame, and the circumstances surrounding it a travesty. Or, as a recently filed federal lawsuit alleges, inaction by DCFS employees “demonstrates an inhumane indifference to A.J.’s safety and shocks the conscience.”

Anyone can file a lawsuit, and allegations are just that.

But there have been enough details released in this case to lend considerable credence to the substance of the claims made against two veteran DCFS employees, Carlos Acosta and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin.

(If they are ordered to pay a monetary judgment, taxpayers will pick up the tab.)

The two remain on the state payroll, although they have been removed from the field and put on desk duty pending an internal investigation.

The primary wrongdoers in this case are what passed for A.J.’s parents, Andrew Freund and JoAnn Cunningham. They have been charged with murder and are being held in jail while awaiting trial.

Authorities alleged these chronic drug abusers subjected the child to repeated beatings, freezing showers and long hours of confinement in a locked room.

The lawsuit alleged that Acosta and Polovin conducted cursory inquiries into A.J.’s circumstances, ignored evidence of his physical abuse and wrongfully reported that two hotline callers raised “unfounded” questions about the child’s safety.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the child’s estate, alleges that DCFS employees violated A.J.’s constitutional rights.

Although there is no disputing that DCFS mishandled this case in the worst possible way with the worst possible outcome, that’s a tough legal argument to take.

The child’s lawyers are alleging that state employees had a duty to protect the child, a mandate they breached and for which they can be held accountable.

Courts, traditionally, have been reluctant to ascribe such duties to public employees because of the almost unlimited liability it would create for the public. Nonetheless, the facts in this case are so egregious and the indifference to the child’s safety so grotesque, these allegations could pass legal muster.

Whatever happens, of course, won’t bring back a boy who was failed by his parents and his supposed protectors at almost every stage of his short life.

A.J. was a high-profile victim of the kind of intra-family violence DCFS was put in place to guard against. But he’s just one of the many child-abuse casualties who make this agency’s work — simultaneously — so important and so difficult, requiring the kind of care and concern that was horrifically absent when A.J. needed it most.

News-Gazette