Monitor questions handling of NJ child death case

Christiana Glenn

June 13, 2011 4:55:26 PM PDT
The state's child welfare system has made significant improvements, a federal monitor and a judge said Monday, despite new revelations about an anonymous tip to an agency hotline in May that went uninvestigated, nine days before an 8-year-old girl was found dead in her home from starvation and abuse.

Judith Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor assigned to report on a seven-year effort to overhaul the state's child welfare system, said she hoped the way the tip was handled was "an aberration."

Christiana Glenn was found dead in her Irvington home from malnutrition and an untreated broken leg. Her two young siblings were removed from the home, injured and severely malnourished.

The children's mother, Venette Ovilde, 30, 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.

At the time of the death, the Department of Children and Families reported it had had four contacts with the family, the most recent in 2008. On each occasion, the agency found abuse complaints to be unfounded, with the children enrolled in day care, eating properly and receiving medical checkups. The family's file was closed.

Shortly after that, neighbors and relatives said, Ovilde underwent a religious transformation, began fasting and keeping her children out school and public view.

Late Friday, the agency disclosed that an anonymous phone call had been made to a tip line on May 13, nine days before Christiana was found dead. The initial log of the call said it came from a person reporting "concern about the appearance and wellbeing of two unknown children" at the same address where DCF previously had the open case on the family. The call went uninvestigated.

On Monday, at a court hearing on the status of the state's overhaul of the child welfare system, more details emerged about what the caller reported.

Agency Commissioner Allison Blake said she had listened to a recording of the call, in which a man speaking in heavily accented English said he was very concerned about the height, weight and well-being of two previously unseen young children that seemed so emaciated, their mother had to carry them.

The worker, who Blake said has been reassigned, recorded the call as "information and referral, requiring no response by (the) field."

The federal monitor was assigned to watch the state agency after a 2003 case in which four boys were found starving in Collingswood, prompting a lawsuit by children's advocates that lead to the state agreeing to overhaul its child welfare system.

"This is not an agency that has gone into a bunker mentality to try and avoid what happened," said U.S. District Judge Stanley Chesler, commenting on Christiana's death. "Nothing can ever bring this child back, but what the court hears is an agency committed to making sure it never happens again."

Meltzer's report, issued Monday, cited many areas where New Jersey's reforms are working, but found that cases are frequently closed before there are proper safety and risk-of-harm assessments done for the families the department investigates.

The state had a target of having the assessments completed within 30 days before closing 98 percent of its cases. But Meltzer's report found that there were risk assessments done in only 31 percent of the cases it closed and safety assessments in 22 percent.

She said the risk assessments were properly done in the Glenn case. She said the fact the children were apparently homeschooled in that case meant they would not have had access to the place where most suspected abuse is flagged.

Meltzer said New Jersey should overhaul its home-schooling regulations to include requirements like yearly pediatric checkups - as it's one of only 10 states where families are not required to tell school officials when they home-school their children.

The report from Meltzer, who is also deputy director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy, found the state is doing well at recruiting foster families, keeping siblings together when they're removed from a home, training its staff, and in other areas.

The report is based on data and interviews covering 2010. It does not directly address Christiana's death, but that was the focus of a large part of Monday's hearing.

Mulvihill contributed from Haddonfield, N.J.