PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Choking back tears, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families on Wednesday detailed actions the department is taking in light of the death earlier this month of a 9-year-old girl in Warwick, who police said was living in squalid conditions with seven other children and one adult.
“The conditions that these children were found living in are completely unacceptable,” DCYF Director Trista Piccola said. “And we’re reviewing every aspect of this case in its entirety.”
Warwick Police said 9-year-old Zhanae Rothgeb, who had special needs, died in a bathtub where her teenage sibling had left her to play in the water. Police say the teenager, who also has special needs, was apparently caring for all the children in the house, which was in “deplorable” condition. Police said garbage, feces, and urine were found all over the house, along with a number of animals.
Michele Rothgeb, the adoptive mother, was charged with cruelty or neglect of a child, and the criminal investigation is ongoing. Her attorney, Andrew McKay, declined to comment on her behalf. She has not yet entered a plea.
Piccola said Rothgeb fostered and then adopted six children over the course of a decade, in addition to her two grandchildren she was already caring for. Three of the six adopted children were siblings. She was receiving $4,800 in subsidies a month, which are calculated based on the number of children and their individual special needs.
Piccola said part of the internal review will look at why Rothgeb was allowed to care for so many children in one home. She said she isn’t aware of any other home that DCYF monitors that has eight or more children.
“We have a group of very well-intended, intelligent, caring people who at this point seem to have made a series of unreasonable decisions, in my estimation,” Piccola said.
Piccola said one employee has been placed on leave in light of the death, and three employees have been given “restricted responsibilities.” She declined to identify those employees or their job titles are, or to say what their involvement was with the family.
DCYF’s involvement with the family ended last July, Piccola said, because the last adoption had been finalized. But she said a social worker inspected the home the prior January as part of an investigation and did not find any of the disgusting conditions police now describe.
“At the time, the family had refused access to the second floor of the home,” Piccola said. She said DCYF is supposed to have access to the entire home. She also said the social worker did note that a 15-year-old child was supervising the other children.
“Did she or he not come back and report that?” remarked Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, who is expecting to be re-appointed as chair of the House Oversight committee this month. “Did he or she not ask for police accompaniment to go to that second floor?”
Serpa, whose committee frequently brings Piccola in for questioning and scrutinizes DCYF, said she has a lot of questions she wants answers to. She wasn’t sure whether the committee would hold a hearing about the child’s death soon, or whether they would wait until the Office of the Child Advocate completes an investigation and releases a report.
“It’s a horror story, and it had a tragic ending unfortunately,” Serpa said.
Serpa said she continues to have faith in Piccola, and believes she’s moving DCYF in the right direction. Gov. Gina Raimondo, who appointed Piccola in 2017, expressed similiar sentiments on Wednesday.
“There’s no question that DCYF’s in better shape now than when she started,” Raimondo told reporters. “This is a tragedy, it’s a horrible situation and we need to get to the bottom of what happened.”
Among the immediate actions Piccola is taking: limiting the number of foster, kinship or pre-adoptive children that can be placed in one home to five or fewer; not placing children in a non-kinship home where other minor children live; and requiring senior managers to be notified of all child protective investigations within 24 hours of a family being screened, and placing the family’s license on hold until after the investigation.
Piccola said any request to increase the capacity of a home to more than five children would need to be approved by her personally or by a person she designates.
“We want what everyone wants, especially those who loved and cared more about her. We want answers,” Piccola said.
Eyewitness News learned Wednesday night the Office of the Child Advocate is also investigating this case. Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith said she has met with Director Piccola twice since Rothgeb’s death. She has created a specialized team to help her look into this case and compile a report in response.
“I’ll be adding a person who has experience with children with developmental disabilities, and I will also be adding someone who has an expansive knowledge of special education systems, particularly in Rhode Island public schools,” Griffith explained.
Griffith said she supports Piccola’s decision to limit the number of foster children that can be placed in a single home. She also agrees with the decision to require senior managers to be notified of all child protective investigations.
The Office of the Child Advocate is a watchdog group for the DCYF, but Griffith said they cannot do this work alone.
“I would remind everyone that everyone is a mandatory reporter,” she said. “And it’s helpful to call before, not after.”