PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The director of Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families is confident her agency has rid the state of foster homes like the one where a 9-year-old girl was found unresponsive in a bathtub in January.
The home was managed by a single foster parent, Michele Rothgeb, who now faces a manslaughter charge in connection with the death of her adopted daughter, Zha-Nae. Rothgeb cared for 13 disabled children over the course of eight years, and had eight in her custody at the time of Zha-Nae’s death.
A report released Tuesday by DCYF’s oversight agency, the Office of the Child Advocate, found Rothgeb should never have been a licensed foster parent, and concludes “the actions, or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.”
In a sit-down interview with Eyewitness News on Thursday, DCYF Director Trista Piccola called Zha-Nae’s death “devastating.”
“We’re all still reeling from it,” she said. “We took it very seriously as we always do.”
Piccola said foster care reform has been something she’d been working on since she arrived at DCYF in 2017, but admits the work was not done swiftly enough to save Zha-Nae.
The girl, who had cerebral palsy and depended on a wheelchair, was found on her stomach, unresponsive in a bathtub in January after having been left there alone for hours.
“We didn’t have enough foster families for the kids who were coming into care,” Piccola explained. “So, as we set about those foster care reforms — and we were being very systematic about it — they didn’t happen fast enough to catch this family.”
Piccola said there have been many changes implemented in the last two years and over the past six months since Zha-Nae’s death, among them a new cap on the number of children allowed in a single foster home.
“It’s all moving forward and we’re just devastated by the fact that it wasn’t in time for this family,” she said.
Piccola said the report released by the Office of the Child Advocate on Tuesday found something similar to the DCYF’s own internal review: “a series of missed opportunities.” She said the individual concerns and complaints about Rothgeb that were raised over the course of multiple years paint a vivid picture when seen together, a perspective that wasn’t achieved until after Zha-Nae’s death.
Now she said there are measures in place to allow DCYF to take a step back and consider the totality of each case. There are two new teams in place to examine all requests to add more children to foster homes and to review all complaints of mistreatment, Piccola said.
“There was no process in place for people to stop, take a second look to make sure… that safety was the priority for the kids living in that home,” she said.
In the wake of Zha-Nae’s death, Piccola said DCYF examined all foster homes with more than five children. There were 28, but none, she said, were like Rothgeb’s.
According to the child advocate’s report, Rothgeb sometimes left the younger children alone with her 14-year-old grandson, who has autism. Sometimes she would keep the children restrained in highchairs or zippered inside mesh netting draped over their beds. They were often clothed in just diapers.
Piccola said her agency is continuing it’s review of foster homes. A DCYF spokeswoman said there are currently 697 licensed non-relative homes, and 1,574 youth living in family-based foster care. About 1,000 of foster youth live with someone they know and the rest are in non-family homes.
Piccola has put a five-child cap on foster homes but some still have up to eight children per family. Those homes were grandfathered in but have been reassessed since January, according to a DCYF spokeswoman.
Piccola said all of the homes with more than five children have two parents and do not have the same number of special needs children living under one roof.
“We’re paying attention. We took this seriously. We took the actions,” she said. “Things are different today than they were two years ago, things are different today than they were in January, but we can’t let up on this.”
In April, Piccola announced several DCYF employees who worked on Rothgeb’s case had been disciplined and three were no longer with the department. The child advocate’s report revealed those three workers had previously left state government and weren’t fired as a result of the department’s internal investigation.
Piccola said she never intended to mislead anyone about how or why those workers left DCYF.
When she took the director’s position, Piccola said it was with full knowledge of the reforms that needed to be made. When asked if she had plans to leave any time soon, she said she was committed to seeing those changes through, noting that there’s still a lot of work to be done.