PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The embattled director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families is stepping down from her post, according to an internal memo obtained by Eyewitness News.
Trista Piccola’s departure was confirmed by the DCYF on Wednesday afternoon.
Gov. Gina Raimondo appointed Piccola in 2017; she took the reins from Jamia McDonald, though McDonald was never officially DCYF director.
“I’m grateful for Trista’s years of public service to Rhode Island children and families,” Raimondo said in a statement. “Under her leadership, DCYF has worked hard to reduce the number of foster children living in congregate care, recruit loving foster families, and keep kids in their home communities whenever possible. Trista has laid a strong foundation that will enable us to build on our progress in the years ahead.”
According to the memo from the governor’s office, Piccola and her family are relocating to Arizona. The memo said state leaders will be searching for a permanent replacement in the coming months and that Piccola has agreed to stay on during that time.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Piccola said she would have stayed with DCYF barring the move to Arizona. Eyewitness News has learned her husband, Thomas Pristow, accepted a position as director of health and human services in Coconino County, Arizona.
In June, Eyewitness News asked Piccola if she planned to leave her post anytime soon:
In a statement Wednesday, Piccola said she takes pride in DCYF’s accomplishments and “its unwavering commitment to improving the services provided to Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children and families.”
“During my tenure, department-wide reforms have led to measurable and impactful successes, including dramatic declines in the number of youth living in congregate care, far more licensed foster families, and a more robust array of home and community-based services that have kept more children and youth safely at home with their families and in their communities,” Piccola said.
Piccola’s tenure at DCYF has been marred with controversy. In 2017, the agency drew criticism after the death of Tobiloba Olawusi, or “Baby Tobi,” who suffered from at least 12 broken bones, a skull fracture and apparent bite marks.
DCYF was under fire again most recently following the death of Zha-Nae Rothgeb, a 9-year-old girl in a Warwick foster home.
Rothgeb was found unconscious in a bathtub in January. The girl’s death lead to a scathing report by the DCYF oversight agency, the child advocate’s office, that concluded “the actions, or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.” The House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the report where one lawmaker urged Piccola to resign.
Rothgeb’s adopted mother, Michele, who fostered or adopted 13 disabled children over the course of eight years, is now facing a manslaughter charge.
SEIU Local 580, the union that represents several departments of DCYF workers, voted no confidence in Piccola following Zha-Nae’s death.
Union president Kathy McElroy said she’s confident Piccola isn’t bowing to external pressure.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with either the no confidence vote, or the Oversight Committee,” McElroy told Eyewitness News. “She’s got thick skin or she wouldn’t have asked for that job in the first place. Is she perfect? Absolutely not. We’ve had worse.”
The Oversight Committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Patricia Serpa, said she doesn’t solely blame Piccola for the issues at DCYF.
“It’s a tough job but it’s the most important job,” Serpa said. “There is zero room for error in DCYF because an error in that agency usually means a tragedy.”
When asked what qualities she’d like to see in Piccola’s successor, Serpa put her focus on the administration.
“What I’d like to to see the governor do is unleash the new director so that he or she can do his or her job without any fear of political retribution,” she said.
Both Serpa and McElroy believe whoever takes over DCYF will have his or her hands full.
“The problems in that department are going to exist whether it’s her or a new director,” McElroy said. “Those problems don’t go away.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi called Piccola’s departure an “opportunity to fundamentally transform DCYF, which it desperately needs.”
“We will continue to work with our government colleagues to support front line staff and increase their ranks, as they are a critical resource in meeting the needs of our most vulnerable children,” Filippi, R-New Shoreham, said in an email.
Piccola said she’d advise her successor to “stay the course.”
“The things we’re doing are working,” she said.
DCYF also announced Wednesday that the agency will undergo an independent review in partnership with the Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families. Newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services Womazetta Jones will oversee the review process as well as the search for Piccola’s replacement.
Piccola’s departure was first reported by The Providence Journal.
Tim White contributed to this report.