DCYF employees vote ‘no confidence’ in director following 9-year-old’s death


CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Approximately 200 employees of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) have overwhelmingly voted “no confidence” in Director Trista Piccola following the death of a 9-year-old girl, according to SEIU Local 580 President Kathy McElroy.

McElroy said the vote occurred in a private union meeting in Cranston Wednesday night.

In early January, Zahnae Rothgeb was found unresponsive in a bathtub, where she was left to play by herself for more than eight hours. Her adoptive mother, Michele Rothgeb, was charged in connection with her death. Police said Michele Rothgeb had adopted six children, all with special needs, from the DCYF.

McElroy said Wednesday night’s vote was the result of many issues her union members have had with the DCYF, including Rothgeb’s death. She said she believes this is the first time members of SEIU Local 580, which was founded in the 1960s, have voted “no confidence” in a DCYF director.

“It’s a statement. They made a statement tonight, and that’s what they wanted to do,” McElroy said.

According to McElroy, her members voiced concerns Wednesday about the department’s policy and staffing.

“Primarily, she [Piccola] holds monthly meetings they go to every month. She [Piccola] asks them questions, and they [employees] feel they are not truly listened to,” McElroy said.

In response to the vote, Piccola released a statement Thursday saying she intends to see the investigation into Rothgeb’s death through to the end.

“This has been a very tragic and difficult situation for everyone, especially for the children involved and this little girl’s family. My priority is to complete the internal review and human resources investigation so that we can finalize next steps and better serve children and families. I welcome the opportunity to meet with union leadership to talk through the results of the review and to get their feedback on next steps, as well as to listen to any other concerns. I know we have a shared goal of doing all we can to ensure the safety of Rhode Island’s children.”

Last week, DCYF Communications Director Kerri White said the department has increased the number of child protective investigators and social caseworkers since Piccola arrived in 2017. White also said the director continues to fill frontline vacancies as they arise.

“They are fully staffed to the model that they’ve developed, which we don’t feel, I don’t feel and my members don’t feel, is a sufficient model,” McElroy said.

McElroy said she will be notifying Piccola, Gov. Raimondo, and the Department of Administration of Wednesday’s vote. She said she hopes to meet with Piccola and her administrative staff soon to discuss improvements.

“We have to go forward together and somehow come to a point where my people feel comfortable in her leadership and where she can work with them,” McElroy said.

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