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Union defends DCYF caseworker criticized in report on 9-year-old’s death

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The uproar surrounding the death of a disabled young girl under state supervision has raised questions about whether the state employees involved should lose their jobs.

The notion was rejected Friday by SEIU Local 580 President Kathy McElroy, whose union represents a R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families caseworker referenced in a devastating report released Tuesday by the R.I. Child Advocate Office.

“I think a worker paying the price for faulty policies, and management being unable or unwilling to manage, is unfair,” she told Target 12. “We need to put good managers in place, along with good policies and procedures, and hire more workers so we can get caseloads down.”

The child-advocate report showed workers at DCYF repeatedly failed to intervene leading up the January death of Zha-Nae Rothgeb, an adopted 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. The child was found unresponsive in a bathtub where she was left unattended for hours.

It specifically singled out one unnamed caseworker in charge of Zha-Nae’s case who failed to take action, and Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith said her office was furious to learn the employee remained employed at DCYF.

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

Several House lawmakers echoed the question during a House Oversight Committee on Thursday. One urged DCYF Director Trista Picolla to resign.

Though some of the workers involved in the Rothgeb case have already left DCYF, Piccola told lawmakers firing people wouldn’t solve the department’s challenges.

But even if that were part of the strategy, removing state employees is no easy task in Rhode Island, according to people inside and outside government.

“Once someone has been in state government for a while, it’s hard to get rid of them,” said Gary Sasse, director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a former top aide to Republican Gov. Don Carcieri.

A large number of state workers are also union members, which typically means they have better job security than at-will workers, who can be fired at any time for a broader variety of reasons.

“For an agency like DCYF, the union is an impediment to making personnel changes,” Sasse said. “It’s not the only factor, but it’s certainly a factor.”

At DCYF, like other state departments, the process to fire a union member can take more than six months, even with cause.

McElroy argued such protections are important because employers could otherwise fire people on a whim and workers would have no recourse.

“It is difficult sometimes, but it should be difficult,” she said. 

Unions are especially strong in Rhode Island, where 17% of all public and private workers are members, according to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training. That’s the highest percentage of workers across all New England states.

The dynamic, according to Sasse, makes it more likely that external forces — like an economic downturn — more likely to result in job losses in the public sector.

“The only thing that forces people to cut state payroll is when they run out of money,” he said.

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

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

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