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Warning signs missed: How Warwick mother, now accused of neglect, came to care for 8 special-needs children

Providence Journal - 1/29/2019

Jan. 29--Michele Rothgeb, the Warwick woman now charged with neglect in the death of one of eight special-needs children in her care, for years seemed to benefit from what amounted to second chances from child-care officials.

And in the case of her last adoption, in July, she may have also benefited from an deficient home-assessment report, a required document prepared by state social workers and reviewed by a Family Court judge before ruling on an adoption request.

"In my opinion there were pieces in the home study that were missing," Trista Piccola, the director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, told The Journal on Tuesday.

A proper "home study" report would have detailed all the particular needs of each of the seven other children in the home, Piccola said, so the judge had, in writing, a complete picture of the home environment and the challenges facing Rothgeb, a single parent.

"You're supposed to talk about each kid's needs" in the home study, Piccola said. "That's what was missing."

(Piccola said she didn't know if there was any testimony about the children's conditions at the adoption hearing.)

As the DCYF, the state Department of Administration and the Family Court continue to investigate the Jan. 3 death of 9-year-old Zha-Nae -- whom Rothgeb adopted in 2015 -- details of how child-welfare officials handled other interactions with Rothgeb dating back to 2006 are surfacing.

In October 2006, court records show, Rothgeb took temporary custody of two grandchildren. But soon thereafter the DCYF denied her a kinship-care license because of her criminal history.

Warwick police say the charges dated back to the 1980s and included receiving stolen goods and two drug-possession charges.

But in September 2007, the DCYF overturned its initial denial of Rothgeb's license.

"After a careful review of the disqualifying information as provided by the department, as well as the letters of recommendation submitted on your behalf, I am removing the automatic bar to your kinship care license," wrote hearing officer Stephen A. Morris on Sept. 14, 2007.

Then in the summer of 2008, shortly after a judge granted her guardianship of her young grandchildren, Rothgeb moved -- without court permission -- to her home state of Oklahoma over the objections of the children's father.

On Oct. 30, 2008, then-Family Court Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah ordered Rothgeb to return the children to Rhode Island.

During a hearing a month later, however, Jeremiah permitted Rothgeb to remain the children's guardian and granted their father visitation rights, court files show.

In 2013, Rothgeb turned up on the radar of the state Department of Health as it monitored a state program offering free baby formula to needy mothers.

The DOH monitors the "Women, Infants and Children Services" program "to prevent abuse," said department spokesman Joseph Wendelken, and some of the free formula was turning up online for sale.

"We were able to trace the formula back to the child and the child's foster mother, Michele Rothgeb," said Wendelken. "WIC staff made clear to her that the resale of WIC food products is strictly prohibited and that any second occurrence could result in prosecution."

The health department brought the issue to the attention of the DCYF. This week, DCYF spokeswoman Kerri White said the agency "did investigate this allegation and staff found no evidence of child abuse or neglect. A child protective investigator visited the home and noted that the children were fed and the formula was well-stocked."

Rothgeb was also told that selling any extra formula was prohibited.

White said, "We are reviewing this incident as part of our comprehensive review of this case."

In January 2018, two DCYF workers red-flagged Rothgeb after she refused their request to inspect the second floor of her white colonial on Oakland Beach Avenue.

The social workers "indicated" Rothgeb for neglect, meaning they entered their findings into the DCYF's database and also forwarded the information to two agency divisions: the Division of Licensing, which oversees foster homes; and the Family Services Unit, responsible for child protection.

Piccola said Tuesday that eventually a social worker did inspect the entire house prior to DCYF approving Rothgeb's most recent adoption in July.

When police and a rescue crew arrived at Rothgeb's house on Jan. 3 for a report of an unresponsive child, they found the house in deplorable condition, reeking of urine and feces. They also found 9-year-old Zha-Nae, who had cerebral palsy, in a bathtub where she had been placed some eight hours earlier.

Rothgeb's lawyer Andrew McKay did not return a telephone call asking for comment for this story.

From a distance it may seem that permitting a single woman to care for eight special-needs children "makes no sense," Piccola said Tuesday.

But Rothgeb's family grew gradually over 10 to 12 years, and earlier DCYF decisions appeared to hold precedent over ones that came later.

Piccola's internal investigation of the case, expected to wrap up next week, has already uncovered what she called a lack of a clear "decision-making structure."

Who, in other words, had the authority to say no -- no more.

"Once you zoom in and begin to really examine how is it that kids arrived into this home, you start to see all of the complications of what's happening in a system where there's, in some ways, not a recognizable system for final decision making."

On top of that, there were "inconsistent observations about this particular person's care-taking capacity." Some social workers "were worried, some other people thought she was doing OK."

That was equally true, Piccola said, for all the private service providers who were coming in and out of the home more than social workers: early intervention experts, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists.

"So," she asked, "where did the providers and the school stand on their perceptions about this women's care-taking capacity?"


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