News Article Details

RI DCYF makes changes in policy, personnel after death of girl, 9

Providence Journal - 4/12/2019

April 12-- Apr. 12--PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island's director of child welfare announced Friday what she called comprehensive and sweeping policy changes within her department following a three-month investigation into the agency's "systemic deficiencies " preceding the death of a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy.

Trista Piccola also announced personnel actions against a dozen workers within the Department of Children, Youth and Families who had interacted with Michele Rothgeb, the Warwick mother whom DCYF allowed to single-handedly care for eight special needs children.

Five employees have been disciplined (and in two cases Piccola recommended suspensions), another five workers were ordered to undergo special retraining and three others, the director said, have resigned.

But at least one of those resignations, the chief of operations, whom The Journal has learned was Teddy Savas, actually resigned in November -- two months before 9-year-old Zah-Nae, who had been adopted by Rothgeb, was found in a bathtub.

Governor Raimondo, in praising Piccola Friday morning for the steps she's undertaken, said Savas -- Raimondo referred to by her former position as deputy director -- had made decisions previously in the Rothgeb case. Piccola "exercised very good judgment" in accepting her resignation, the governor said.

The policy changes DCYF is making include:

Limiting to five the number of children that can be placed in a home -- the limit had been seven -- without the director's approval and a full assessment of the family.

Requiring that all home study reports be approved by a DCYF administrator before they are submitted to Family Court for adoption consideration.

Among the numerous deficiencies found in the Rothgeb case was an incomplete home study report for Rothgeb's last adoption, last July, which never explained the special needs of the seven other children in the house.

Police charged Rothgeb with child neglect after a rescue crew found Zha-Nae, who had cerebral palsy -- unresponsive in a bathtub on Jan. 3. Police say the deceased girl may have been in the tub for up to eight hours and had lived in a house of squalor.

The medical examiner's office found she died of complications from her disease and neglect, Piccola said Friday.

"While not representative of DCYF, this case demonstrated that our safety net is not yet comprehensive enough to meet the needs of every single child, every possible circumstance," Piccola said. "That's unacceptable and it's exactly what we're working to change."

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