Recently the concept of trust has come up in Warwick on several occasions. More specifically, how much trust should be doled out in certain situations and which situations call for more skepticism?
To address one of the most tragic stories we’ve covered recently, the death of a 9-year-old Zhanae Rothgeb in Oakland Beach has, to this point, displayed a fatal oversight on the part of DCYF in the amount of trust it gave out to a mother who was clearly in way above her head and not in a position to care for the children entrusted to her supervision.
It is unfathomable that one single parent could be able to adopt six children – all with varying degrees of disabilities – and allow them to languish in a state of such unfathomable putridity as what was described by responding Warwick police detectives. The conditions of the household, alone, would be bad enough, but Michele Rathgeb failed even to adequately supervise the situation, leaving a 15-year-old grandson with needs of his own in charge of a situation that would give multiple professional caregivers a difficult challenge.
How was it possible that, despite DCYF director Trista Piccola not being able to find another instance of an adoptive family having more than five adopted children, Rothgeb was allowed to adopt a sixth child, despite an earlier visit from a social worker where they were barred access from a certain area of the house – the area that would later be found to contain the urine and feces-soaked bed of the deceased young child?
How was it possible that a woman earning nearly $4,800 a month from taking on the care of so many needy children would allow their living situation to become so inconceivable, and not have any oversight into the fact that the situation was degrading so badly?
As is all too often the case, this horrific situation will likely prompt a severely strong reaction from DCYF to ensure that adoptive parents, especially those with multiple adoptions or those who adopt special needs children, will never enjoy the same level of trust again. To say the least, this is unfortunate, as we are sure that a vast majority of adoptive parents are doing amazing work and giving their adopted kids lives that they would never enjoy without their benevolence.
Unfortunately, we are a society that is most often impacted by our weakest links. In some ways, this ensures that we strengthen areas that need improvement. DCYF clearly had blind spots in their policies and this event will, hopefully, ensure something like this can never happen again. At the same time, we hope these coming changes will not make it so that well-intentioned, responsible foster parents and prospective adopters are over-burdened or punished for the deeds of the irresponsible.
A story like this shakes our foundations and makes us question what it means to trust. We like to be able to believe that a person who would adopt six special needs children is an angel incarnate, and a force for good in the world. We believed such a notion without a second thought when we reported a story in March last year regarding a community-led fundraiser to fix Rothgeb’s handicap van.
We saw the surprising fact in the story – a woman taking care of eight kids, all of whom had some form of disability. We raised our collective eyebrows, thought “What a wonderful thing that this nice woman got the money she needed to fix her van,” and moved on, never asking another question. We trusted there was nothing so horribly negative about the situation brewing under the surface.
It may be a hard story to tell, but it is important to do so. We will not stop trusting people to do wonderful things – like a story also featured in today’s edition about a Warwick resident’s huge donation of clothes to those in need – but we will also carry this story with us as a harsh reminder that sometimes there is more than meets the eye.
We wish the remaining children taken from the household every bit of hope moving forward that they may find peace and tranquility wherever they may wind up, and mourn for the loss of one little girl who had no say in how she was treated. We will have to trust something positive can emerge from a situation so terrible, because sometimes trust is all you have.