The Star-Ledger New Jersey May 24, 2011
Reports of neglect made against mother of Irvington girl who died, but charges were not filed
By Star-Ledger Staff
Irvington -- In the DYFS case file, the first sign of trouble was on March 23, 2006.
That was the day Venette Ovilde was accused of neglecting her 3-year-old daughter, Christiana Glenn, the day the state Division of Youth and Family Services opened its file on the 24-year-old Irvington woman.
Details provided by the agency today allege three more instances of physical abuse and neglect would follow in less than two years, with one claiming Ovilde had beaten Christiana after the child wet her bed. In the last documented report, on April 4, 2008, Ovilde allegedly abused and left unattended Christiana and two younger children, but by May 2008, the allegations had all been marked "unfounded" and the cases closed.
On Sunday afternoon paramedics discovered the broken and severely malnourished body of Christiana in her bedroom. She was dead. The other children, who are 6 and 7, were alive but had similar broken bones and with barely enough flesh to cover their faces, authorities said. They remain hospitalized.
Ovilde, 29, who had called police to report her child wasn’t breathing, was arrested and stands charged with aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment. Her roommate, Myriam Janvier, 23, is charged with child endangerment.
The revelation that the state’s child welfare system, supposedly undergoing a massive reform, may have failed a family in tragic crisis was among a series of developments today in a case that has baffled law enforcement and outraged the community.
Interviews today with neighbors, friends and relatives described how the family appeared to undergo a sudden change sometime around the first DYFS report. The mother, they say, went through a religious awakening. She fasted for days on end, shrouded herself, her children and apartment in white, chanted loudly and met daily with a man who had named himself after Jesus.
The children, who were never enrolled in school and rarely left their second-floor apartment, essentially disappeared.
"We expect the department will initiate a full investigation with the Department of Education and other state agencies to understand how this family could have slipped under the radar of the child protection system for the last two years,’’ said Judith Meltzer, a Washington, D.C., child welfare expert who is the federal court-appointed monitor for the ongoing DYFS reform effort.
It was in 2008 when Ovilde’s religious conversion began, after meeting a man who called himself Emanyuel Rezirekson-Kris, her older sister, Mullyan Ovilde, said. Venette, she said, "was brainwashed" by Rezirekson-Kris, she said through tears.
After meeting Rezirekson-Kris, Venette Ovilde approached her sister, saying both women needed to turn their lives around. "She said ‘Sis, you need to follow Christ. You’re doing demonic things, but Pastor Emanyuel can help,'" Mullyan Ovilde said.
The faith Rezirekson-Kris practices is called "Walking With Christ," Mullyan Ovilde said, a congregation that may have been based out of Venette Ovilde’s Irvington apartment. Its members may have included only Ovilde, her children, Janvier and three other women. Rezirekson-Kris urged Venette to fast, suggesting she eat fish in place of meat, then only vegetables, Mullyan said. Venette rarely spoke with her family after meeting him, her sister said, and began referring to her oldest daughter as Christina Rezirekson.
When approached inside a bakery he owns in Elizabeth today and asked if he was Ovilde’s spiritual adviser, Rezirekson-Kris said only, "May God bless you."
Mullyan Ovilde said she believes Rezirekson-Kris is responsible for the change in her sister, who is seen smiling and hugging her children in various family photos she shared with a reporter today.
Essex County acting Prosecutor Caroyln Murray would not say whether Rezirekson-Kris is part of the investigation, which remains active despite the two arrests. Authorities are trying to determine what role, if any, the religious affiliation played in Christiana Ovilde’s death, and whether the child’s physical abuse and malnutrition were in some way connected.
"This is an active investigation and in all honesty, that would be just speculation at this point," Murray said today.
But when Christiana was found in the apartment Sunday, she was wearing white garments associated with the "Walking With Christ" faith, according to two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation but who were not allowed to discuss the case.
Marita Lind, a pediatrician specializing in child abuse at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said she did not see many instances of religious-based neglect or starvation. Religion sometimes are used as a justification for patterns of abuse, she said.
"I don’t know of a religion that advocates for you to harm or kill your child. If the person did so, they did it on their own. The religion is not to blame," Lind said.
But after Ovilde’s religious conversion, neighbors said, the children essentially vanished, and the Irvington School District said none of the kids was ever enrolled. "They were always home-schooled," Superintendent Ethel Hasty said today. "That’s what the family chose to do."
According to the state’s compulsory education law, school officials have very little responsibility to ensure that home-schooled children are being properly educated. That obligation falls squarely on parents or guardians.
Authorities say Ovilde divorced the children’s biological father, Shakiel Glenn, in 2005, after three years of marriage. He has been notified about his daughter’s death, but there is little information on him. He is listed as living in Jersey City, but attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
William Weathers, who rented out the Irvington apartment to Ovilde five years ago, said the children who had once been bubbly and energetic just stopped appearing on the streets.
Calvin McLean, a next-door neighbor, noticed a similar change. "They didn’t go too many places. The kids were always home. Always," McLean said.
Inside the home, Weathers and numerous neighbors said they would hear the family’s loud, chanting prayers several times a day. Following the allegations of abuse, DYFS completed a medical history on everyone in the home, ordered Ovilde to undergo a psychiatric and psychological assessment, and provided furniture for the family.
In May 2006, DYFS also assigned a parental "aide" to assist Ovilde, department spokeswoman Lauren Kidd said. DYFS would have required the family to be visited monthly by a caseworker.
Children and Families Commissioner Allison Blake called Christiana’s death "a tragedy." "I’m deeply upset by it," she said. "When I saw there was a DYFS history, I wanted to understand what the history was.’’
She said the agency will "review the entire case."
Whatever details from the internal investigation reveal about how DYFS handled the case will be turned over to the Child Fatality and Near-Fatality Review Board. The board periodically releases a report but does not refer to any case by name. Details of Christiana’s death bear an unsettling resemblance to another child’s case eight years ago that riveted national attention on New Jersey’s deeply-troubled child welfare system. In January 2003, Essex County investigators got a tip that led them to a Newark apartment, where they found a 7-year-old boy and a 4-year-old boy — lice-infested and suffering from malnutrition and dehydration — cowering under a bed soiled with urine, feces and vomit.
Later they found the older brother, 7-year-old Faheem Williams’ body wrapped in a quilt, stuffed in a plastic storage box and hidden inside a closet. An autopsy showed the child had died from starvation and blunt force trauma to the stomach weeks earlier.
Then-Gov. James McGreevey revealed the Division of Youth and Family Services had botched the Williams family’s case, by severing its decade-long involvement with the family.
The state eventually settled a class-action lawsuit on behalf of foster children brought by the national advocacy group, Children’s Rights. Supervised by a federal judge in Newark and a child welfare expert in Washington D.C., the state has pumped more than $1 billion into reforming DYFS but the agency still operates under the watch of a federal monitor.
By Susan K. Livio and James Queally/The Star-Ledger
Staff writers Alexi Friedman, Ryan Hutchins, Richard Khavkine and Seth Augenstein contributed to this report.
The Star-Ledger New Jersey May 27, 2011
For 8-year-old Irvington girl who died, a short life bereft of toys, fun
By Star-Ledger Staff
IRVINGTON — Two years before starvation made her bones as brittle as dead twigs, Christiana Glenn sat with her godparents in the office of a court-appointed counselor, explaining what life was like in her Irvington apartment.
Meals were soup and crackers. Always soup and crackers. That's what Pastor Kris wanted, the godparents said Christiana, then 6, told the counselor.
What about toys, she was asked.
There were no toys, the girl answered. Christiana’s mother — "mommy sensei," she called her — believed toys were "idols."
"We don’t go to school," the girl said, according to her godparents. "Pastor Kris teach us and we stay at home."
And what did she do for fun?
Tommie and Mary McCoy said their goddaughter sighed deeply and didn’t respond.
The account of that meeting, held in West Orange in August 2009, offers an early glimpse into the spare, sheltered existence of a child who would later suffer an agonizing death, one brought on by severe malnutrition and complications of a badly broken leg.
As prosecutors and child welfare officials continued parallel investigations, the McCoys and their daughter, Channell Fields, spoke of their efforts to help Christiana, discovered dead by her mother on Sunday.
The mother, Venette Ovilde, has been charged with aggravated manslaughter in the death of the 8-year-old. She faces additional charges stemming from the alleged neglect of her two younger children, a 7-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. The siblings, also suffering from broken bones and severe malnutrition, remained hospitalized Thursday, authorities said.
The McCoys, who live in Bergen County, had been part of Christiana’s life since her birth, taking her in for weeks at a time and sharing birthdays and holidays with her. At one point, they said, the girl accompanied them on a trip to Disney World.
"She was a sweet girl," Fields said. "She always wanted people to see her when she was dressed up. She loved to wake you up in the morning. She would stick her finger in my ear."
They family had come to know Ovilde through their non-denominational Christian church, Fountain of Life in Woodbridge. Ovilde, they said, later joined a different church in Newark. Then, in 2008, she met "Pastor Kris."
Emanyel Rezireksyon Kris, 37, practiced a faith the McCoys didn’t recognize. A native of Haiti who went by the name Andre Wilkens before legally changing his name, Rezireksyon Kris led services daily inside Ovilde’s Chancellor Avenue apartment, where the sounds of frenzied chanting filtered through the walls and windows.
Ovilde, the McCoys and Fields said, quit working as a teacher’s assistant at Calvery Christian Academy in Newark and withdrew Christiana from the school. Once a doting mother, Ovilde began to neglect her children as she devoted more and more of her time to the sect, the godparents said.
Increasingly concerned about Christiana’s welfare, the McCoys in 2009 moved to gain custody of her in the family division of Superior Court in Newark. The meeting with the counselor in West Orange was meant to assess the strength of the McCoys’ relationship with the girl. In the end, the McCoys said, a judge denied their custody request.
The decision deeply troubled the McCoys, who said Ovilde had fully embraced what they called a a "cult."
"To a certain extent, she was manipulated and brainwashed," Fields said.
Fields said her visits to Ovilde’s apartment ventured into the eerie. During one visit, four robed women stood in the corners of Ovilde’s living room, chanting loudly as they stared at Fields, she said.
On another trip to Irvington, seven members of the congregation stood lined against a wall, as if at attention, watching her.
Over time, Fields said, she and her parents were completely cut off from Christiana.
By last week, the girl’s medical condition had become dire, authorities said.
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the case said Christiana was "malnourished beyond belief." The sustained lack of food made the girl’s bones easily susceptible to breaks. Indeed, the official said, Christiana’s femur may have broken on its own, in the course of movement, and not as a result of a beating.
"The femur is the strongest bone in the body, but it was so brittle that it fractured in two places," said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. "Must have been immense pain."
By Ryan Hutchins and Mark Mueller/The Star-Ledger
Staff writers Susan K. Livio, James Queally, Alexi Friedman and Seth Augenstein contributed to this report.
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