The death of any child is enormously tragic. But the loss of 9-year-old Zah-Nae Rothgeb – a Warwick girl with cerebral palsy and other health issues who died earlier this year while in a foster home – is something more.
Zah-Nae’s caregiver now awaits trial in connection with her death and faces decades in prison. The agency through which she was placed under that caregiver’s custody, meanwhile, is rightly facing intense new scrutiny.
A 57-page report released last week by the Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate concludes that the state’s Department of Children, Youth & Families failed Zah-Nae, and that “the actions, or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.”
“Over the course of 13 years, [DCYF] had multiple opportunities to intervene,” the report states. “Through complaints from the community, observations from their own employees and by concerns relayed by service providers, there were numerous opportunities to intervene and to prevent the death of this child. There will never be a realistic answer to the question of how can one person care for eight special needs children. It is our opinion that DCYF needs to be held responsible and accountable. Certain employees of DCYF showed poor judgment and disregard for the safety of the children in this home.”
Michele Rothgeb – who had eight children under her care at the time of Zah-Nae’s death – has been charged with manslaughter and neglect/abuse of a child. The Child Advocate’s report describes in detail how Rothgeb was continually allowed to continue to take vulnerable children into her care despite clear signs and concerns over her fitness and the conditions at her home.
The report outlines 21 recommendations for DCYF, including more stringent review and training processes for all front-line staff and the hiring of additional front-line staff across the agency.
As this year’s legislative session wraps up at the General Assembly, we urge all Rhode Islanders – and especially our elected leaders, from Gov. Gina Raimondo on down – to heed the Child Advocate’s call for change at DCYF. There must be a renewed focus on accountability, and on ensuring anyone who shirks or is unable to fulfill their responsibilities – managers and front-line employees alike – is no longer in a position to put children’s lives at risk.
We owe it to those workers who do their best to protect children but face overwhelming caseloads and extremely difficult circumstances. We owe it to the foster care providers who demonstrate an uncommon level of compassion and commitment in opening their homes.
More than anything, we owe it to the children under DCYF’s care – the most innocent and vulnerable among us. We cannot, and must not, fail them any longer.