Judge: Warwick mom charged in adopted daughter’s death must appear in court next week

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) ─ While the lawyers representing a Warwick woman charged in the death of her adopted daughter appeared in court Wednesday, their client was nowhere to be found.

Michele Rothgeb, 57, was arrested in January 2019 after 9-year-old Zahnae Rothgeb, who had cerebral palsy, was found unresponsive in a bathtub inside her Oakland Beach Avenue home.

Police said Zahnae had been left to play by herself in the tub for hours and was being cared for by her 15-year-old brother, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

Rothgeb has been charged with manslaughter, as well as seven counts of child neglect ─ one for each of her adopted children.

A pretrial conference Wednesday lasted less than two minutes, and Rothgeb was not in attendance.

Judge John McBurney set a return date for Sept. 23 and was direct in letting Rothgeb’s attorneys know he expects her to be present.

“I want Ms. Rothgeb here that day also,” McBurney told her attorneys. “Unless there is some overarching reason why she can’t be. You understand me?”

Rothgeb’s whereabouts are unknown at this time, according to court records. The records do show, however, that she was last living on a farm off Ten Rod Road in Exeter, where she was using an alias while mourning the death of her daughter.

Zahnae’s death led to sweeping changes at the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

A report released by DCYF’s oversight agency, the Office of the Child Advocate, found Rothgeb should never have been a licensed foster parent and concluded: “the actions or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.”

Since Zahnae’s death, the state has capped the number of children who can live in a foster home at five. Some homes still have up to eight children because they were grandfathered in, according to the DCYF. The agency said each of those homes has been reassessed since then, and they all have two parents and do not have the same number of children with special needs living under one roof.

Rothgeb pleaded not guilty to the initial two charges in June 2019.

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