Zha-Nae Wilkerson

‘There were a lot of red flags’: Biological family demands answers after disabled little girl is found dead in adoptive mom’s bathtub

The biological family of a 9 -year-old disabled Rhode Island girl who was reportedly found dead in a bathtub in her adoptive mother’s home is demanding answers from the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, weeks after the little girl’s death.

Speaking with WJAR, Zha-Nae Wilkerson’s grandmother wanted to know how the young child died while under the agency’s watch. Wilkerson’s uncle accused his niece’s guardian, Michele Rothgeb, 55, of abruptly cutting contact with them before her death last month.

“[Rothgeb] sent text messages to family members painting the picture as if everything was OK and Zha Nae was doing awesome and she was having so much fun,” uncle Jeremy Ogunba said. “Come to find out, she was living in those conditions.”

Wilkerson’s grandmother, Florence Mitchell, explained that her son and daughter-in-law determined they were unable to care for their disabled daughter five years ago. Mitchell, who was previously a caseworker, said her granddaughter had cerebral palsy, a shunt in her head, and tubing throughout her body.

Rothgeb was arrested on child cruelty or neglect charges on January 13, more than a week after police responded to her Warwick home and reportedly found Wilkerson unresponsive in the bathtub. The 9-year-old was later pronounced dead at the hospital, according to ABC News.

Authorities who responded to the home on January 3 reportedly noted the overwhelming smell of urine and waste. At the time, Rothgeb had custody of eight children—all with special needs—either through adoption or guardianship.

The Providence Journal reported that social workers visited the Warwick home in January 2018, following allegations that Rothgeb was neglecting the eight children in her care. At the time, she allegedly refused to allow social workers to view the home’s second floor.

WJAR reported that DYCF director Trista Piccola placed one worker on administrative leave and another three on limited duty following Wilkerson’s death. Approximately 200 out of 300 DYCF union members went on to vote “no confidence” in Piccola, finding she ignored “concerns of the frontline staff,” SEIU Local 580 President Kathy McElroy said.

While Piccola claimed there were “inconsistencies” in social workers’ reports, McElroy said their involvement was “varied,” noting that a children’s home environment could change from month to month. The union president also told WJAR that the agency is grossly understaffed—with caseworkers taking on twice an acceptable workload.

Despite this, the 9-year-old’s relatives still want to know how and why the agency failed their little girl.

“There were lots of red flags that we could see,” Ogunba said. “Why couldn’t DCYF see these same signs?”

[Featured Image: Zha-Nae Wilkerson/Handout]