Union members from the Department of Children, Youth and Families voted “no confidence” in Director Trista Piccola following the death of a Warwick child with special needs.
The group “voted overwhelmingly” during a meeting in Cranston Wednesday night, SEIU Local 580 President Kathy McElroy told NBC 10 News.
“They made a statement tonight and that’s what they wanted to do,” McElroy said, adding that about 200 out of its 300 members voted.
Meanwhile, NBC 10 reached out to the director and the DCYF spokesperson immediately after the vote Wednesday.
On Thursday the department sent out a written message from Piccola saying her priority was to complete the internal review and human resources investigation to ensure the safety of children in Rhode Island.
This has been a very tragic and difficult situation for everyone, especially for the children involved and this little girl’s family. My priority is to complete the internal review and human resources investigation so that we can finalize next steps and better serve children and families. I welcome the opportunity to meet with union leadership to talk through the results of the review and to get their feedback on next steps, as well as to listen to any other concerns. I know we have a shared goal of doing all we can to ensure the safety of Rhode Island’s children.
Authorities said Warwick police responded to a home on Oakland Beach Avenue Jan. 3 just before 5 p.m. after receiving a medical call about a child with previous medical conditions.
The child, later identified as 9-year-old Zahnae Rothgeb, was taken by rescue to Kent Hospital, where she was pronounced dead a short time later.
Zahnae, who had cerebral palsy, was found unresponsive inside an empty bathtub at the Warwick home of Michele Rothgeb, who was her adoptive mother.
Warwick police said the home was filled with trash and human waste and was in deplorable condition.
Rothgeb had a total of eight children, all with special needs, living in her home, either through adoption or guardianship.
Rothgeb was charged with one count of cruelty or neglect of a child.
“The death of Zahnae is the culmination of the last several years under this director and her not listening to the concerns of the frontline staff,” McElroy said.
Piccola placed one DCYF worker on administrative leave and three others on limited duty. She told the Providence Journal there were “inconsistencies” in the social workers’ reports.
But McElroy defended the employees.
“There were varied times people went in. Inconsistency -- home life can change from one month to the next, depending on circumstances at the home at the time,” McElroy said.
McElroy criticized Piccola, stating DCYF workers have double the caseloads they should and said the agency is wildly understaffed.
“It’s a skeleton crew,” she said. “We have to go forward together and somehow come to a point where my people feel comfortable in her leadership.”
McElroy said she is going to reach out to the governor and is going to try to set up a meeting with Piccola.
(NBC 10's Ashley Cullinane contributed to this report.)