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Serpa, Solomon: DCYF Shirks Accountability for Girl’s Death

The Rhode Island State House is located at 82 Smith St. Providence.
The Rhode Island State House is located at 82 Smith St. Providence.
The Rhode Island State House is located at 82 Smith St. Providence.

WARWICK, RI — Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families, charged with providing at-risk children safe homes, faces scrutiny from two Warwick representatives following a report on a nine-year-old girl in foster care found dead in Oakland Beach Jan. 3.

That day, Zha-Nae, 9, was found lying face down naked in a bathtub by a rescue crew while in the foster care of Michele Rothgeb, 55, in the woman’s l405 Oakland Beach Ave., home. The details of the death were part of a report by The Office of Child Advocate presented to the House Oversight Committee Thursday night, Chairwoman Patricia Serpa announced.

The committee heard a review of the report, which found DCYF staff had ignored several dangers facing eight special needs children who had been placed in Rothgeb’s care.

Rothgeb now faces manslaughter charges.

“We maintain that the actions, or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child,” the report reads, according to a statement by Rep. Joseph J. Solomon Jr. (D-Dist. 22, Warwick).

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“People need to be held accountable and responsible,” Rhode Island Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith told the House Oversight Committee Thursday night. “Too many employees showed poor judgment and just reckless disregard, not only for this one child who died, but the other children who became her siblings.”

Serpa expressed disbelief Thursday night that no DCYF employee has lost their job as a result of the girl’s death.

“We take babies from the delivery room, we take children from their biological parents, because we say, ‘You’re at risk. You’re not safe.’ We take them with the sacred charge of keeping them safe. And what did we do here? We buried this little girl.”

Solomon was also incredulous that DCYF staff have faced no consequences following the child’s death.

“I am so outraged and saddened by this; and I can’t believe that not a single employee in DCYF has even been fired ver this incident,” Solomon said. “It’s not enough to say they’re going to review their policies and procedures. We need to investigate to see if there is any criminal culpability here.”

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“How many more children have to die?” asked Serpa. “This is a tragedy. This is injustice. This is murder. There is blood on this department’s hands.”

Serpa told DCYF officials that the committee would reconvene in about six weeks to take up the matter again.