For 8-year-old Irvington girl who died, a short life bereft of toys, fun

The New Jersey Star-Ledger/May 27, 2011

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."

And school?

"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."

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