DCYF director urged to resign over explosive report

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families Director Trista Piccola was urged to resign Thursday after a report showed her agency failed multiple times to intervene leading up to the death of a young girl with disabilities.

Deputy House Speaker Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, called for Piccola’s resignation during an emotional House Oversight Committee meeting that came two days after release of a report by the child advocate’s office investigating the death of 9-year-old Zha-Nae Rothgeb.

“If you had any honor or dignity you would hand in your resignation and walk away. No pension, nothing,” Lima said.

The hearing focused on Zha-Nae, who died in January after she was found unresponsive in a bathtub. Zha-Nae, who was one of eight adopted children with disabilities, had been left unattended for hours.

Piccola, who has led DCYF since early 2017, fielded questions and criticism for more than two hours.

She told irate lawmakers inadequate policies and poor communication contributed to Zha-Nae’s death, and her department is trying to address underlying issues.

“We’re not here to make excuses,” Piccola said. “There are not adequate words to express the deep regret we feel over losing this dear girl … nor the regret for the red flags that were missed.”

That drew pushback from Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith, who headed the investigation into the death. She said DCYF was notified multiple times about Zha-Nae’s poor and dangerous living conditions and repeatedly took no action.

“These red flags — it’s not a new situation. Here are pages and pages of poor judgement,” Griffith said, referring to the report. “How did no one see this?”

Oversight Chairwoman Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, called the entire situation “disgusting.”

“There is blood on this department’s hands,” Serpa said. “Why no person has been fired is beyond my comprehension. We buried this little girl. We didn’t keep her safe.”

Piccola said the shortcomings of DCYF have existed for years. She offered examples of how her department has improved, including an ongoing hiring blitz of frontline providers.

The vacancy gap is about 5% today compared to 20% when she started, Piccola said.

But the director rejected the idea people should lose their jobs over this death.

“We can’t hire our way out of the problems we have in Rhode Island no more than we can fire our way out,” Piccola said.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo – who gave Pioccola the job – said Wednesday she still has confidence in the director.

“The department is functioning better today by far than it was when she took over,” Raimondo said.

When Zha-Nae was found dead in her home, it was cluttered and smelled of urine and feces, according to the report.

Zha-Nae’s adopted mother, Michele Rothgeb of Warwick, now faces charges of manslaughter and cruelty to or neglect of a child.

During the oversight hearing, Piccola said bad policies and miscommunication exacerbated this particular case. New policies and tighter oversight would help prevent future tragedies, she added.

Griffith disagreed.

“The information was accessible,” she said. “The department should have followed the policies it had.”

Griffith was especially critical of the social worker, whom she didn’t name, in charge of Zha-Nae’s case, noting specifically that the person remained employed at DCYF.

“My panel is incensed this person still works there,” she said. “If this person is still working there, what is a fireable offense at this point?”

The child-advocate office made a series of recommendations on how DCYF could help remedy the situation.

Griffith said the agency should immediately hire at least a dozen more frontline staff to deal with an unmanageable caseload at DCYF.

Unabated, the consequences could continue to be dire, she added.

“There were eight victims in that house and one has died,” Griffith said. “We need some accountability.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

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

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