Message at Zah-Nae vigil: 'It can't happen again'

Warwick Beacon ·

Kristen Sami never met Zah-Nae Rothgeb, although they lived in the same neighborhood. She sat with Michele Rothgeb when police and rescue responded to her Oakland Beach Avenue house to the call that Zah-Nae, who had cerebral palsy, was unresponsive and believed to be dead on Jan. 3.

Sami couldn’t understand why first responders weren’t more sympathetic and caring of Rothgeb, who adopted Zah-Nae and seven other children with needs.

Sami understood when learning of the deplorable conditions of the house, and that Zah-Nae had been left in a bathtub for as many as eight hours. Rothgeb told police she was suffering from the flu and had left the children in the care of her 15-year-old grandson who has Asperger’s.

“I don’t like using the word ‘mom,’” Sami says in talking about Rothgeb. “She’s not a mom to me.”

Rothgeb has been charged with cruelty to or neglect in the death of her daughter. The Department of Children Youth and Families has placed the children in other homes and some of those in attendance said, if anything, that is the good to have come out of Zah-Nae’s death.

There was no public service for Zah-Nae, no way for the community to express sorrow in such a tragedy.

Sami thought there should be more. She was the driving force behind the candlelight vigil held Saturday evening at the commons at Oakland Beach. She reached out to the school department, police and the mayor’s office and to Steve DeLoreto, whose stepson, Zack Baldwin, composed and recorded a song for Zah-Nae. It was played Saturday before a closing two minutes of silence for Zah-Nae.

Black t-shirts with Zah-Nae in lively colors were worn by many of the more than 50 people huddled near the beach gazebo. Members of the audience were given photographs of Zah-Nae. Mayor Joseph Solomon was among those gathered, as were Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis, Ward 7 Councilman Steve McAllister, School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus and school committee Vice Chair Judy Cobden.

Several in attendance came to know Zah-Nae through Warwick schools.

“She was like the little mayor of Oakland Beach School,” said Sue Meyerson.

An occupational therapist, Meyerson said Zah-Nae was non-verbal when she knew her. Nonetheless, Meyerson said, she would wave to students from her wheelchair and smile.

In a phone interview Friday teacher Lisa Vota, who had Zah-Nae in pre-school at the Drum Rock Early Childhood Center and later at Lippitt School, described her as a “pistol.”

“She was so full of life, always with a big smile and so happy.” She said Zah-Nae loved music and would “rock out” in her chair and tap a stick that she had.

At some point, Vota said, Zah-Nae was in a body cast and apparently suffering from bedsores. That issue was brought up with Rothgeb, and in response she pulled all of the adopted children out of school, said Vota.

Teacher Deb Cerel expressed similar frustration in attempting to deal with conditions they were seeing in school.

“We had questions, but never enough to make a call for her [Zah-Nae],” she said. Asked what were the conditions, Cerel said it was instances where Zah-Nae and other children in the family would come to school in pajamas or without proper clothing for the weather.

Cerel said the vigil was important in highlighting the tragedy and ensuring that it never happens again.

While talking with Sami prior to the vigil, as those present stamped their feet and rubbed their hands to stay warm, Solomon talked of the love and passion it takes to care for children and, especially, children with special needs.

“Foster parenting is not a business,” he said. Yet, in this case, it seems to have been the motivating factor for Rothbeb to have adopted so many children. She was paid a stipend of about $4,800 monthly and was found to be indebted to the tune of over $15,000 to various entities.

“This is not an isolated incident,” the mayor said.

Sami called her appeal to the community to pay tribute to Zah-Nae overwhelming. She thanked city representatives for their assistance, the contribution of candles by North Point Bank and Baldwin for his song.

“This cannot happen again,” she said.