WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Deplorable. That’s how prosecutors described the conditions in the home in which a 9-year-old girl who died earlier this month lived with her guardian.
That guardian, Michele Rothgeb, 55, was arraigned Monday on one charge of cruelty to or neglect of a child, and ordered held on $25,000 bail with surety. Rothgeb did not enter a plea. A judge ordered her to stay away from any children that were in her care.
Warwick police said officers arrested Rothgeb at her Oakland Beach Avenue home Sunday morning.
According to a police report, the home was in squalid condition, with the stench of urine and feces throughout the home.
The report said Rothgeb was caring for the eight special-needs children she had adopted.
She told detectives she had to be “hands off” with them because she was suffering from the flu and some of the kids had compromised immune systems.
On Jan. 3, the 9-year-old victim, who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was placed into a bathtub at 8:30 a.m. by Rothgeb’s 15-year-old grandson after he found her crawling in the hallway covered in vomit. Rothgeb told police the 15-year-old has Asperger’s syndrome.
After he cleaned her off, the grandson then put “2-3 inches of water in the bathtub to let her play which is something she typically did,” according to the police report. More than three hours later, the girl was given a “sippy cup” for nourishment.
At 4:30 p.m. that day, eight hours after being placed in the tub, police said the girl was found “lying face down naked” in the tub unresponsive, which was empty because water had slowly drained out.
Doctors told police the girl’s body temperature was only 87.7 degrees when she arrived at the hospital.
Police said the girl’s bedroom was in “deplorable condition.”
“There was a pile of soiled diapers on the floor that had a stench of urine and feces,” McGaffigan wrote. “Detectives observed there to be bugs on the ceiling. The second bed had netting around it, and it was soiled with what appeared to be animal droppings.”
The house was so jammed with refuse that the girl could not use her wheelchair so it “was stored in a van outside,” police said.
“Due to the clutter of the home there was limited space to move about the home freely and there was trash all over the floor,” they wrote.
Tim Scotti, the general manager of Picasso’s Pizza & Pub, said the restaurant donated a significant amount of money to a community fundraiser to help fix Rothgeb’s handicap-accessible van last year.
“It’s a shame that it more or less went to waste because that could have gone to someone else who could’ve used the help a little bit more but we saw an opportunity to help out, we had to take it,” Scotti said.
Mark Eaton, board of directors chairman of the Warwick Elks Lodge, said their organization donated toys to the Rothgebs in Christmas 2017. That’s how they learned of the need to fix the van.
“You can’t worry about who took advantage of you or who didn’t because for every three that do, there’s a hundred that we help that needed it,” Eaton explained. “So, that’s what you have to look at, the good of what you’re doing, not the few who took advantage of it.”
Eaton said the Elks Lodge raised approximately $1,300 last spring to repair Rothgeb’s van.
Police, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) and the attorney general’s office launched an investigation after the child’s death.
DCYF released a statement following Rothgeb’s arrest, saying they had no contact with the family after July 2018 and the remaining seven children were taken from her.
“After that date, DCYF no longer had oversight of the family,” DCYF spokesperson Kerri White said in an email. “The Department had one prior investigation regarding Ms. Rothgeb/this house. We did not observe similar conditions in our previous visits. On Jan. 3, the Department took immediate protective action regarding the other children because of the condition of the home that evening.”
At that time, Major Mark Ullucci told Eyewitness News police received a medical call to a home on Oakland Beach Avenue. The child – whom Ullucci said had a medical condition – was taken to Kent Hospital but passed away.
“The investigation is ongoing,” Ullucci said. “There is a possibility that additional charges may come up as it progresses.”