NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two women pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of child endangerment a week after an 8-year-old was found dead in their apartment from severe malnutrition and an untreated broken leg and her injured and emaciated siblings were removed alive.
The children's 30-year-old mother, Venette Ovilde, stared blankly and answered a judge's questions in a barely audible whisper as she entered her plea through a court-appointed attorney. She remains held on $500,000 bail on aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment charges.
Her 23-year-old roommate, Myriam Janvier, also pleaded not guilty through a court-appointed attorney to child endangerment charges. Her bail was continued at $100,000.
Christiana Glenn died May 22 from severe malnutrition and a fractured femur that authorities said had never been treated. Her 7-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother remained hospitalized for treatment of malnutrition and other injuries after being removed from Ovilde's Irvington apartment.
The children were discovered after the police were called to the home on a report of a child not breathing.
The women, who were both born in Haiti but came to the U.S. at a young age, radically altered their lifestyles about two years ago when they came under the sway of a man they described as their religious leader, according to friends and acquaintances.
They started dressing in head-to-toe white clothing and white headdresses, dressed the children all in white, removed all their furniture and belongings and piled them in a heap on the front sidewalk, and covered the floors and doorways of the apartment with white material, according to landlord William Weathers. He often heard loud chanting or prayers in Creole and French coming from the apartment, he said.
The children, once friendly and rambunctious, stopped interacting with family and neighbors and were not attending school. Ovilde legally changed her name to Krisla Rezireksyon Kris and changed the children's last names to Rezireksyon, after their leader, said Weathers and authorities. Rezireksyon was the name she used in court Wednesday.
The women frequently fasted and restricted the children's food intake to the point that friends, such as Chanel Fields, the daughter of Christiana's godmother, became alarmed at how thin they had become.
"The children weren't allowed to swallow their own spit. They'd spit in napkins or tissues or on the ground," Fields said. "They said it was because they were fasting."
Fields said her family, who had adored Christiana and sometimes cared for her, was heartbroken over her death.
"She exuded joy," Fields said. "From day one, she was a sweet, compassionate, caring child, always sharing with her siblings. She was a smart little girl, and such a good baby."
Fields and her mother, Mary McCoy, became alarmed at the children's condition, and McCoy said she unsuccessfully petitioned the courts to take custody of Christiana.
McCoy said she first met Ovilde at church when she was pregnant with Christiana.
Describing Ovilde as a young, inexperienced single woman frightened by impending motherhood, McCoy said she and her husband took her under their wing, often caring for Christiana or her siblings for weeks at a time and lavishing them with gifts, a trip to Disney World and pony rides. When Ovilde left their church and McCoy started pressing her about the children's declining health, Ovilde cut off contact.
"I wish I had been a little more aggressive," McCoy said. "I wish I could have disobeyed the judge or the family and done something for Christiana."
Assistant Essex County Prosecutor William Neafsey told The Associated Press on Wednesday that authorities hadn't ruled out additional charges, if the investigation warrants them.
He said the children had suffered extreme disciplinary measures such as being chained to a radiator if they didn't comply with their religious studies.
"It's a very sad case," Neafsey said. "There's still a lot of work to be done, and it'll be ongoing."
New Jersey's Department of Children and Families received two calls about the family in 2006 and two more in 2008. There were allegations of neglect and abuse, including that Ovilde beat Christiana for wetting the bed and left all three children unattended.
All four instances were determined to be unfounded and the family's file was closed on May 1, 2008. Family and acquaintances who described Olvide's religious conversion said it started taking place around 2009.
Both DCF and Judith Meltzer, the federally appointed monitor for the agency, say they are investigating. Meltzer has said she plans to explore whether it was appropriate for the department to close the file.
Samantha Henry can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/SamanthaHenry