Woman pleads not guilty to manslaughter in adopted daughter’s death

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — The adoptive mother of a 9-year-old girl whose death led to changes at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) faced upgraded charges in court Friday.

Michele Rothgeb, 56, pleaded not guilty in Kent County Superior Court to manslaughter and cruelty to or neglect of a child.

Police arrested Rothgeb in January after her adopted daughter Zha-Nae, who had cerebral palsy, was found unresponsive in a bathtub where she had been left alone for hours.

The DCYF said Rothgeb was a single parent who had eight foster or adopted children in her custody at the time of Zha-Nae’s death. Her home was in “deplorable” condition, according to investigators, with garbage, feces and urine found all over the house, along with a number of animals.

A grand jury indicted Rothgeb earlier this month on the upgraded charges. At her arraignment Friday, the judge ruled to carry over the $25,000 bail from her previous charges. She was ordered to have no contact with children under the age of 16 and must get permission to leave the state.

Rothgeb is due back in court Aug. 13 for a pretrial conference. She and her attorney Andrew McKay offered no comment outside court.

Video Now: Michele Rothgeb leaves court

A report released June 11 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.”

The report details Rothgeb’s history with DCYF, from her initial inability to become a foster parent due to a criminal past that included incarceration to her gaining permission from the agency to care for up to eight children at once, many of whom are “disabled to some degree.”

The report also revealed that Rothgeb sometimes left the younger children alone with her 14-year-old grandson.

Since Zha-Nae’s death, the state has capped the number of children that 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 January, and they all have two parents and do not have the same number of children with special needs living under one roof.

Five DCYF employees were disciplined in the wake of Zha-Nae’s death. Three of those workers are no longer with the agency, though the report says they were not fired as a result of this case.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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