Andrew “A.J.” Freund could have been my child. That’s what I thought when I first heard the terrible news that the 5-year-old had gone missing in a Chicago suburb on April 18, and thought again when I heard the horrific news that his parents had killed him, after forcing him “to remain in a cold shower for an extended period of time” and beating him until he died, according to prosecutors. His parents then allegedly buried him in shallow grave, all the while pretending that they had nothing to do with his disappearance.
But none of us—especially those of us who are parents—believed that A.J.’s mother and father were innocent because they didn’t respond to his disappearance like bereft parents who’d lost the most precious thing in their lives. I knew it was all a lie because I know how much I treasure my son and how unimaginable it would be to ever hurt a hair on his head. We worked so hard medically (mostly my wife) and wished so hard for so many years to have a child (we became parents in our early 40s) that he is our greatest asset and no amount of money, success, or anything else could replace that treasure. If he is happy, we’re happy. If he feels safe and content, we feel the same.
Although we’re overwhelmed daily with news stories that detail the horrible things humans do to one another (often children), A.J. Freund’s story hit me hard and made me especially sad. Perhaps it’s because in the photos of this sweet, smiling boy in news stories, I can see my own 8-year-old son a few years back. Or because I know that there is a strong chance that A.J. never received even an ounce of the love that good parents normally shower on their children. A.J. deserved so much better in his short life, and the idea that he rarely, if ever, felt this torrent of parental love makes me feel hurt and angry. I’m also angry because the world we live in has become darker (because of corporate greed; environmental degradation; the growing gap between rich and poor; the loss of worker rights; the mean-spirited, unethical, crass, and vindictive machinations of our president, etc.), more trite (Instagrammable places, Twitter feuds, the culture of the celebrity, etc.….yet, I use social media like much of the rest of the world), and mentally lazy (the celebration of the flashy and shallow over substantial ideas, lawmakers who don’t want to do the heavy lifting required in working across the aisle to create legislation that helps everyone regardless of their politics, the drop in the number of people who read beyond the basic headlines of web news stories and social media headlines, yet have opinions about everything) with every passing day. We’ll cry for A.J. for a few days or weeks and then the world will simply become distracted by the next inane trump tweet, Kardashian story, or viral video until the next tragedy comes along.
A.J. really never had a chance. Born to a mother with opioids in her system, he grew up in a dirty, broken house full of turmoil. So much so that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took custody of him after he was born with opiates in his system and then investigated two allegations of neglect by his parents. Despite the clear signs of his terrible life, the agency concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated and allowed A.J. to stay with his parents. DCFS has a lot of explaining to do, but without all the facts, I’m not going to pile on. There will be a time for that later. And as we blame DCFS, we also need to remember that state budgeting has become politicized over the years. Our leaders have cut funding or underfunded many state departments and social services agencies that protect our children, our ill, and our elderly.
There will be a time to point fingers, but in the end, A.J. is still dead. His “parents” will hopefully be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, and DCFS will be reformed and better funded to protect children. But despite this list of things that are supposed to help us get our heads around evil acts and obtain a form of “closure,” I’m left feeling sad and a bit powerless to change the world. A.J. was just one example of a world that does not value our children. For example:
- School shootings still occur on a regular basis.
- The trafficking of children continues to be a major problem. Each year, 10 million children worldwide are forced to engage in commercial sex or to provide labor or services against their will, according to Polaris.
- Adults continue to force children to become combatants in wars and insurgencies all over the world. The United Nations (UN) has helped free more than 115,000 child soldiers since 2000. Ironically, the United States, which considers itself a champion of the rights of children, is the only UN member state not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- More than 6.4 million children around the world have been forcibly displaced and have become refugees as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.
- More than 12 million children in the United States do not know where their next meal will come from, according to Feeding America.
- So-called “leaders” of our churches, other religious entities, and scouting organizations have damaged or ruined the lives of innumerable children through sexual and physical abuse.
All this tragedy. All this suffering. Yet, life is busy. Our hearts may be moved. We may be good people. But, at some point, life must go on. When terrible things happen, we grieve, we fret about the state of the world, and we live our lives. But for some reason, I have a huge desire to do something in A.J.’s memory. Nothing can help him now, but maybe one simple act of good can make the world a better place. It sounds naïve, but when it comes down to it, all anyone who is not a lawmaker or police officer can do to make the world a better place is to do good things. But what can one human being really do to change the world for the better?
In the end, we can only do what we can based on our intelligence, talents, energy, age, level of motivation, and other factors. It’s frustrating that the well-intentioned actions of one person probably won’t change the world.
Unless, that is, we all resolve to do better.
I like the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which involves fixing and improving the world. I’m sure every religion or humanist group has its own similar philosophy, but the Jewish one comes to mind now.
Let’s all push back against the darkness in small and big ways. Beautify the world by planting flowers. Hold a door for someone. Listen to others rather than talk over them. Pray or send good mental wishes to our friends and enemies. Let someone merge on the expressway. Be less quick to judge others. Don’t take the last serving of ice cream in the freezer. Spend more time with our kids. Compliment, rather than complain about, our spouses. Try to find common ground with those we don’t agree with. Resist making negative posts or comments on social media. Shovel a neighbor’s walk. Volunteer. Take an elderly person grocery shopping. Treat strangers like friends. Get involved in groups and causes that protect and improve human life and the environment. And, above all, protect the children of our world from harm in every way possible.
None of these actions will solve all of our problems. A recent Gallup Poll found that Americans are among the most stressed people in the world. Our levels of stress, anger, and worry are at the highest point in a decade. But even doing the simple things I mentioned sends the pendulum of peace and justice swinging back to the good side of our natures. Imagine if every single person in the United States—327 million—stepped up their “good game” just a notch. This sounds like a simple solution to a mind-bogglingly-big problem. But maybe it just starts with the actions of a few people who were shocked and saddened by the terrible murder of a sweet little boy.
Copyright Andrew Morkes