More charges sought in death of 9-year-old

Warwick Beacon ·

Warwick Police are in discussions with the Attorney General about bringing additional charges against the Warwick woman who has been charged with cruelty and neglect relating to the Jan. 3 death of her 9-year-old daughter, Zhanae, one of eight children ranging from 2 to 15 years old in her care.

“We’re looking to see if there are additional charges,” Maj. Mark Ullucci said yesterday. “Nothing is off the table at this time.”

Ullucci was reached following an unusual press conference Wednesday morning during which Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) Director Trista Piccola acknowledged that, as a practice, the department does not allow the adoption of more than five in a family. She offered no explanation as to why there were eight children in the Oakland Beach home.

According to Piccola, Michele Rothgeb, 55, of 405 Oakland Beach Ave., was the guardian for two of the children – her grandchildren – and six who had been placed as foster children and were later adopted with DCYF approval. Piccola described all the youths as “having needs.”

Rothgeb has served as a guardian since 2006, said Piccola.

Rothgeb was being paid just under $4,800 a month in subsidies that are provided to families to help cover the costs associated with caring for a child, particularly if they require additional care because of their needs. Subsidies do vary based on each child’s needs. Adoptive parents are not required to account for how they use the subsidy.

Rothgeb was charged Sunday with gross and habitual cruelty and permitting the girl to be a habitual sufferer for care. She was arraigned in Kent County on Monday, and bail was set at $25,000 with surety. Ullucci said Rothgeb posted bail on Tuesday and police were checking yesterday to see whether she had returned to the Oakland Beach house to care for pets, including two dogs, two turtles and guinea pig.

“I want to start by acknowledging why we’re here,” said Piccola to begin her statement at the press conference after a pause to wipe tears. “On Jan. 3, a little girl died. She was 9 years old. She had people in her life who loved her and cared about her and who are heartbroken by this loss as are we. This is a tragedy that weighs heavily on all of us, myself and my staff included.”

She added, “We want what everyone wants, especially those that loved and cared most about her – answers.”

However, answers are in short supply at this time from DCYF. Why was Rothgeb allowed an exception to the maximum adopted child policy? Why, after a social worker went to visit the household last summer – where they were reportedly denied access to the home’s second floor – was she still allowed to adopt her sixth child with special needs?

One unidentified DCYF employee has been placed on administrative leave and three others were put on limited duty. Piccola said in her statement that the department would be codifying five changes to its policies in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

These include changes to how adoptive families are screened; putting in plain writing the five-child maximum for adoptive families (unless given special authorization by the director); not allowing children or sibling groups to be placed with other unrelated foster children unless through special authorization of the director; and unspecified changes to the department’s oversight and accountability protocols.

A “deplorable” situation

According to the affidavit written by Detective Patrick McGaffigan of the Warwick Police Department, the scene experienced by emergency responders to the house at 405 Oakland Beach Ave. on Jan. 3 – and the scene that was simply known as their day-to-day existence by the eight special needs children who resided there – was nothing short of abhorrent.

Rescue responded on Jan. 3 to a 911 call placed by the 15-year-old. Rothgeb was at the home when rescue and police arrived, said Ullucci.

“The conditions of the home were deplorable and had an overwhelming odor of urine and feces,” the affidavit reads. “There was garbage all over the house. There was an old sandwich in the dog’s bowl.”

The conditions of the bedroom that belonged to Zhanae – who had cerebral palsy – were equally vile.

“There was a pile of soiled diapers on the floor that had a stench of urine and feces,” the affidavit continued. “There were two beds in the bedroom. One had been soiled with feces and urine and appeared not to have been changed in many months. There were sippy cups left on the soiled bedding. Detectives observed there to be bugs on the ceiling. The second bed had a netting around it, and it was soiled with what appeared to be animal droppings.”

It was reported that the deceased child, who was wheelchair-bound due to health complications, would not even be able to utilize the wheelchair as, “Due to the clutter of the home there was limited space to move about the home freely and there was trash all over the floor.”

There were two dogs in the house – a small poodle and a Bullmastiff mix. There also was a guinea pig and two turtles, one of which “was in the sink in the downstairs bathroom and the other was in a bin on top of the toilet.”

Rothgeb told detectives that she had been sick with the flu for two weeks, leading her to be “hands off” with the children in the home. Two of the children, including a 15-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome who was instructed to take care of the remaining children, are Rothgeb’s grandchildren. She had adopted the other six kids. Three of the six are siblings, Piccola said.

The affidavit details how the 15-year-old child had been tasked with being the primary caregiver to the house full of special needs children, which included tasks such as changing diapers and cooking for all the children in the household. Early in the morning, the boy had assisted Zhanae after he saw her crawling from her bedroom to the bathroom “covered in vomit.”

The boy helped her into the bathroom and cleaned her up, and proceeded to leave 2-3 inches of water in the tub for her to play in, “which is something she typically did.” He returned a few hours later to feed her from a sippy cup and refilled the tub, as it had a weak drain. He left a couple hours later to get three of his siblings off the bus, including his 13-year-old brother, and then began to cook.

The 13-year-old checked on Zhanae around 4:30 p.m. – approximately eight hours after she had been first put into the tub – and “found her lying face down naked in the empty tub unresponsive.” The 15-year-old called 911. Zhanae was pronounced dead at 5:46 p.m. at Kent Hospital.

“Based on the victim being left naked and alone in the bathtub for somewhere between 3.5 to 8 hours, the apparent long-term lack of supervision and care as evidenced by the deplorable living conditions of the house, it is requested that a warrant be issued for one count of Cruelty or Neglect of a Child RIGL 11-9-5 for Michele Rothgeb,” the affidavit concludes.

In addition to the investigation from Warwick Police, DCYF and the Attorney General’s office, Piccola said Wednesday that the department is working with the Office of the Child Advocate, which oversees DCYF.

“Once these reviews and the law enforcement investigation are complete, we are prepared to take any other actions necessary to further strengthen our work with children and families,” Piccola said. “I want to be clear that I do not believe that what happened in this case is representative of the work of my staff or our department as a whole. And this case is certainly not representative of how our foster and adoptive families care for our children.”

When asked about prior deaths of children under the watch of DCYF, Piccola said that has been the case but there were no reported deaths in 2018.

She took no pride in that accomplishment.

“This is not a badge of honor,” she said, “that’s our job.”