House panel reviewing ways to address problems at DCYF


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The House Oversight Committee convened Thursday evening to discuss proposed changes at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

The recommendations were included in a report by the Office of the Child Advocate that highlighted systemic problems at the DCYF.

The report released in June found the agency was at least partly to blame for the January death of a Warwick girl with cerebral palsy who was left unattended for hours in a bathtub at her adoptive mother’s home.

The mother, Michele Rothgeb, 56, has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and child neglect in the death of 9-year-old Zha-Nae.

The child advocate report found Rothgeb shouldn’t have been a licensed foster parent in the first place, and the DCYF failed to intervene despite receiving complaints about her.

At the time of Zha-Nae’s death, Rothgeb was fostering eight children with special needs at once. Later that month, the DCYF began limiting to five or fewer the number of foster, kinship or pre-adoptive children that can be placed in any one home at a time.

On Wednesday, the DCYF announced plans to hire 23 additional frontline workers in response to the report’s findings.

Overall, lawmakers were pleased with the additional hires, but some questioned which positions will be changed and who will be promoted.

SEIU Local 580, which represents more than 300 DCYF employees, held a small rally outside the State House ahead of the hearing.

Union President Kathy McElroy said the employees are overworked, caseloads have never been higher and it’s putting children at risk. She hopes members will testify before the committee and share their experiences.

“I do think that there’s a misconception about what they actually do on a daily basis and what their job entails and how much work, effort and heart they put into everything they do,” she said. “The fact that it’s been undoable for a considerable period of time, it’s demoralizing for them.”

McElroy said the plan to hire more workers is a step in the right direction but the DCYF now has to find people to fill those positions and keep them from leaving after just a short time.

She also said it’s more than just staffing issues at the DCYF.

“I think one of the issues is—and I’ll be honest with this—is that we underfund human services and these types of agencies all the time,” McElroy added.

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