PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Systemic changes will never bring back the life of a Warwick girl with special needs, but they could save the lives of other children who have been adopted or fostered by families with the approval of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
DCYF held a news conference Friday morning announcing the conclusion of a three-month investigation into the death of 9-year-old Zhanae Rothgeb and changes that will be made to the department following her death.
Rothgeb’s adopted mother, Michele Rothgeb, has been charged with cruelty to or neglect of a child. DCYF says she fostered and adopted six children over the course of a decade and was caring for two of her own grandchildren. Three of those six adopted children are siblings.
“Through the course of our investigation, what we discovered was a series of lapses in policy and in judgment that failed to detect significant changes in the ability of this mother to care for her children,” DCYF Director Trista Piccola explained. “It’s a painful conclusion that was affirmed by the state medical examiner’s office, which has determined that the child’s death was caused by complications of cerebral palsy, including her seizures, and as a result of neglect.”
As a result, personnel changes to the department have been made. DCYF announced five employees are being disciplined and in two cases, the director recommended they be suspended. Three employees no longer work for the department or the state. One of those was the chief of operations, who resigned. Another five employees have been issued “improvement plans” and must be retrained.
Additionally, frontline staff members have been trained to assess a family’s ability to care for a child while senior staff has undergone leadership training with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Four chiefs of practice standards were hired in January to oversee and strengthen caseloads.
When asked if the tragedy was the result of a systemic problem or personnel problem, Piccola said it was a bit of both and that it could not be solved simply by firing personnel. When asked if it was the result of employees having too heavy of workloads, the director said this was not caused by that, but she is always looking into workloads.
Piccola said the following reforms have been made since January:
- No more than five children will be placed in a home, without the director’s approval and a full assessment of the family’s ability to care for and nurture children.
- Unrelated children will not be placed in foster homes, without approval from the director or her designee.
- All adoptive home study reports must be approved by a DCYF administrator before they are submitted to Family Court.
- A multidisciplinary team will review child protection investigation cases of licensed homes.
- All child safety investigations must include a comprehensive assessment of a family’s ability to care for a child, including a review of financial constraints, family supports, employment situation, and other outside factors.
Piccola said while these changes have been made in the wake of the girl’s death, they are not a “knee-jerk” reaction to it. When asked what she meant by that, Piccola said the changes have been in the works since she became the director in 2017. However, there were other changes that first needed to be made before these could be implemented. Unfortunately, Rothgeb died before these changes were made.
“We, like many systems, have been suffering from a shortage of foster families, so it’s almost as though you have to solve Problems A and B before you can solve Problem C,” Piccola said. “So if Problem C is we need to stop putting a lot of unrelated children in the same home together, you first have to have enough families for those children to live in, safe families for them to live in, and then Part B you have to get everybody to do the practice shift.
“Parts A and Parts B were already underway,” she continued. “We didn’t move fast enough to be able to catch and reach this family. This family had been in the making for over a decade before we could get that specific reform in the pipeline.”
Piccola also said that in the past year, they’ve been able to increase the number of foster families in Rhode Island by 25 percent.
DCYF would not comment specifically on the positions of the employees who have been disciplined or removed from the department.
President of Local 580, which represents more than 300 DCYF employees, Kathy McElroy said she believes these changes will make a difference, but it may not solve everything in the department.
“There are still too many cases, there are still not enough workers,” McElroy said.
After learning that Piccola believes Rothgeb’s death was not a workload-related issue, McElroy said she will wait to hear what the Office of the Child Advocate has to say.