NJ agency gets complaint 9 days before child dies

Christiana Glenn

June 10, 2011 6:18:35 PM PDT
New Jersey child protection officials disclosed Friday their agency received an anonymous report of suspected abuse nine days before an 8-year-old Irvington girl was found dead in her mother's apartment, but did not order a field visit.

The Department of Children and Families is looking into why the report of the phone call, in which the caller gave an address where DCF previously had an open investigation, was not linked to the other case files. The agency had an open investigation on the family from 2006 to 2008, and classified four previous complaints of suspected abuse and neglect in the home unfounded before closing the case.

"This is a child protection agency, and it's really hard to absorb if there was a failure of this magnitude," said Commissioner Allison Blake.

The agency only learned of the fifth complaint in its recent investigation into the child's death.

Blake said DCF has not yet determined whether the oversight was an isolated or systemic failure in the safeguards. She also emphasized that the agency has made many improvements since a court-ordered federal monitor became involved, and said many of the current policies, protocols and training were not in place when the agency was first involved with the family.

"While the handling of this fifth referral raises concerns, this should not serve as an indictment of the entire child welfare system, nor does it reverse the significant progress that has been made to date," she wrote in a letter to colleagues updating them on the investigation.

Records released by the agency late Friday mention an anonymous call, received May 13, from a person reporting "concern about the appearance and wellbeing of two unknown children." The call was recorded as "information and referral, requiring no response by (the) field."

Eight-year-old Christina Glenn was found dead May 22 in her family's apartment from malnutrition and an untreated fracture in her femur. Her two young siblings were removed from the home, injured and severely malnourished.

The children's mother, 30-year-old Venette Ovilde, has pleaded not guilty to aggravated manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child. Her roommate, Myriam Janvier, 23, has pleaded not guilty to child endangerment.

Friends and acquaintances said the women, both Haitian nationals who emigrated to New Jersey at a young age, had recently come under the sway of a religious leader who made them dress themselves and the children in head-to-toe white garments and engage in fasting and all-day prayer sessions. Ovilde allegedly removed the children from school and no longer allowed them to interact with outsiders.

The agency previously reported only that it had contact with the family between 2006 and 2008. A report from the commissioner updating stakeholders on the investigation into the handling of Glenn's case said the agency had reviewed the way the four complaints during that time period had been handled and determined they had been correctly classified as unfounded.

Investigators at the time found the children to be in school, receiving medical attention, getting the proper amount of food and said the children appeared "cooperative and loving."

"It appears there was a seismic shift in this family sometime after DYFS closed its case in 2008," the report states.

The case has drawn comparisons to when four boys were found starving in Collingswood in 2003, leading to an overhaul of the child welfare system. In 2004, the state settled a lawsuit filed by the children's advocacy group Children's Rights Inc., seeking changes to the way New Jersey deals with children who need protection.

The state has hired more caseworkers and improved their training. It has upgraded a computer system used to track children. Now, siblings are more likely to stay together when they are removed from a home and there are more services for foster children as they age out of the child-welfare system. With an emphasis on helping families, far fewer children are ever removed from their families' homes.