Child Advocate report: DCYF partly to blame for Warwick girl’s death

West Bay

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state’s Office of the Child Advocate has released the findings of its investigation into the death of a 9-year-old Warwick girl, who was found face down in the bathtub of her adopted mother’s home in January. 

The 57-page report includes a lengthy timeline of Michele Rothgeb’s dealings with the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) leading up to the discovery of Zhanae Rothgeb’s body. 

The report begins in 2007, when Rothgeb became the legal guardian of her two grandsons, who were five and three years old at the time. According to the report, Rothgeb was disqualified from becoming a licensed foster parent to her grandsons because of her criminal record, which included drug and larceny charges. The report also said she was “financially unstable” and had a “history of mental health issues.”

However, Rothgeb appealed the decision and subsequently became the boys’ legal guardian.

According to the report, in 2011, Rothgeb re-applied to become a foster parent. She said she “wanted to foster teens at risk of aging out of the system.” But, the report says Rothgeb eventually “decided caring for infants and preschoolers, particularly Immediate Response placements, would be a better match for her and her grandsons.”

In her application, Rothgeb wrote that she had, “extra love, extra space, extra time…” for foster children.

According to the report, Rothgeb fostered 13 children from 2011 to 2018, with eight children being the most she had in her home at one time. The report says many of the children were handicapped, nonverbal and autistic.

It says Rothgeb fostered her first child from the DCYF in July 2011 – a two-year-old girl, who suffered from a seizure disorder. Less than a year later, in January 2012, the report indicates Rothgeb fostered a second child – a three-month-old, who was diagnosed with GERD and eczema, and “hospitalized for a short period to address an RSV infection.”

According to the report, that child’s biological mother complained to the DCYF several times about the care Rothgeb was providing. For example, in November 2012, the biological mother told the Child Protective Investigator on the case that Rothgeb “is caring for five children and she [biological mother] doesn’t feel the FM [foster mother] is supervising the children adequately.”

The report says that biological mother requested the child be removed from Rothgeb’s home several times, but that the department didn’t act on her concerns.

The report goes on to detail various incidents involving Rothgeb and her foster children.

In 2012, the report said one of her foster children was transported ot the hospital after having a seizure. The EMS report for that incident says, “upon arrival to the home [the child] was on the floor naked and cold.”

In August of 2013, the report says Rothgeb came under investigation by DCYF after the agency was informed she was selling one of her foster children’s prescription formula on Craigslist. The report says “this is a very specialized formula and should not be given to other children without a prescription.”

A DCYF investigator interviewed Rothgeb, according to the report, and found out she hadn’t sold the formula yet, and that she was “unaware she could not sell it… and this was all a misunderstanding.”

The report also indicates there were several times Rothgeb attempted to refuse contact with DCYF. 

For example, in November 2013, a social worker with the department made an unannounced visit to Rothgeb’s home. The report says, “Upon arrival of SW [social worker], FM [foster mother] verbalized being unhappy that SW [social worker] was there as FM [foster mother] responded to SW [social worker] via email regarding a visit.” The report goes on to say Rothgeb only opened the door a crack, and then requested more notice of the visit as her house “was not as clean as she would like.”

The report also says several DCYF employees voiced their concerns, but were ignored. 

In June 2016, the report said DCYF requested a variance to allow Rothgeb to foster an eighth child, who was related to a child already in her care. The agency needed the variance to allow for the maximum number of children by a single parent to be permitted. 

The report says, “Concerns around FM’s [foster mother] ability to care for an additional infant are raised by some DCYF workers however, FM [foster mother] has the backing and support of the assigned SW [social worker] and Supervisor to place infant in the home.”

After a re-licensing visit in August 2017, the report says, “there was no follow up to determine if [Rothgeb] had the ability and supports in place to deal with all the documented medical, psychiatric and behavioral issues of all the children living in the home.”

On January 29, 2018, the report says a call was placed to the Child Abuse Hotline regarding Rothgeb caring for too many children, many of whom “are disabled to some degree.”

A Child Protective Investigator was assigned to go to the home. According to the report, “The home was observed to be cluttered and out of order, there was a strong odor of urine present. FM [foster mother] refused to allow CPI [Child Protective Investigator] access to the 2nd floor bedroom area, rather instructed oldest grandson to carry the children one by one downstairs.”

The report indicates the case was referred and hand delivered to the Licensing Division for Regulatory Review, but that there is no documentation the department conducted a home visit to follow up on the issues of this foster home. 

On January 3, 2019, Zhanae Rothgeb was found dead in a bathtub inside Michele Rothgeb’s home. When DCYF investigators arrived to the home that day, the report says they found it in “deplorable condition.”

The report notes “there was a strong odor of feces and urine throughout the home. There were dozens of soiled diapers in piles in several rooms.”

It also states that in Zhanae’s bedroom, the two beds were “covered in what appeared to be vomit and urine. One of the mattresses was folded backwards and was covered in toilet paper, animal feces and sippy cups.”

The report also says DCYF investigators found several bags and bottles of medication in an upstairs bathroom that had Zhanae’s name on them. The investigator said they appeared to be anti-epileptic medication, in bags that were “stapled shut and unopened.”

After Zhanae’s death, the child protective investigators began speaking with those close to the Rothgeb family. In speaking with a teacher of one of the foster children, investigators found out that teacher would strip down the child every day “to check for marks or bruises.” The teacher said that child “comes to school dirty all the time and this teacher has provided clothes and sneakers to keep at the school to change him into during the day.”

Report’s findings:

The report details 20 specific findings from the investigation, including:

  • Some of the Rothgeb foster children were dressed in nothing but a diaper during the winter.
  • The children were frequently contained in their highchairs.
  • Rothgeb admitted to “laying a child down to get the child to swallow. A medical professional had to counsel her against this as the child could choke.”
  • In two of the cases, the biological parents of these children had concerns regarding the placement. 
  • In 2012, a DCYF worker noted erratic behavior by Rothgeb when arriving at her home to transport a child. 
  • In 2013, DCYF noted a foster child in Rothgeb’s care had told someone at his school that he was being locked in a room. The report says there was no follow up from DCYF regarding this claim. 
  • It was heavily documented that the children were frequently very ill, which prevented “their consistent involvement in services and maintaining of important medical appointments.”
  • There was “faulty understanding of the role and responsibility of all DCYF staff in this case ensuring the safety and well-being of the children in this home.”

In order to compile this report, the Child Fatality Review Panel decided to depose several DCYF employees and a court-appointed guardian, who represented several of the foster children.

The following six individuals were deposed: Two licensing administrators, the court-appointed guardian, a social caseworker and two caseworker supervisors. 

During an interview, the report states that one social caseworker said, “it was not a concern… that Rothgeb was a single parent with 8 special needs children.”

Child Advocate’s Recommendations:

The report details 21 recommendations the Child Advocate will now be making to DCYF and state lawmakers, including:

  • The department should improve the verification information that is reported by case participants.
  • The department should increase both pre-adoption and post-adoption supports and services to ensure a comprehensive plan is in place for the family.
  • The department should develop and mandate specialized training for any prospective foster parent prior to taking in a child with special needs. 
  • The department should develop a strict policy requiring that prior to placing a child in a foster home, a written, in-depth assessment of the ability of the provider be completed. 
  • The department should develop a strict policy that no variance is granted without a team meeting comprised of administrations, assigned social workers, assigned casework supervisors, and relevant staff from the licensing unit. 
  • The department require an evaluation from the Aubin Center when there is suspected abuse or neglect.
  • The department improve and increase public education regarding mandatory reporting with a focus first on the public-school system.

The Office of the Child Advocate will present its findings to the House Oversight Committee on Thursday.

Rep. Patricia Serpa, the chair of the oversight committee, said after reading through the report herself, she believes DCYF needs to take a good look at how it’s placing children and who they’re placing children with.

“I would love there to not be one more child death as I hold this chair of oversight,” Serpa said. “But I’ll bet one more legislative paycheck that there will be more.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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