DCYF needs to be transparent, committed to reform following tragedy


All too often it takes a major tragedy to occur before people start paying attention to issues or organizations responsible for those tragedies strive to make changes to prevent such incidents from happening in the first place.

In the case of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), they claim that a wide-scale reformation process was already underway prior to the tragic death of a 9-year-old Warwick girl, who was found unresponsive in an abhorrent hellscape masquerading as an adoptive home by police after being left, naked and neglected, in a bathtub for many hours without proper care or supervision.

That may very well have been the case. But regardless of what reforms the department were kicking around prior to the death of Zha-Nae Rothgeb, the reform process they are undergoing now is undoubtedly more stringent and robust than it would have been had that horrific incident not occurred.

When these types of incidents occur, it is easy enough for people to point fingers and demand in outcry for heads to roll and for people to get fired in disgrace. Certainly, some of the practices or “lapses in judgment” as described by DCYS director Trista Piccola are worthy of outrage – like the fact that eight special needs children could be placed under the roof of one person, without verifying in any way whether or not that person is financially capable of caring for so many kids.

However, Piccola is right about the fact that you can’t simply fire people, suspend people or otherwise punish state employees and expect that to make things better. True reform requires first admitting that there are flaws in the system that need to be addressed, and then actually putting in place new policies that make sure those flaws are corrected.

We give DCYF credit for admitting their role in the tragedy, although we do wish they were a bit more transparent about what decisions, actions or inactions amounted to “lapses in judgment” and which amounted to departmental deficiencies that resulted in such a large blind spot that allowed such glaring red flags to go unnoticed for so long.

Despite statements that there were no scapegoats utilized in their reaction to the incident, it seems as though certain employees became exactly that. Without a clear explanation as to why certain employees were let go, why others are being recommended for suspension while others are only being given additional training – and by lumping deficient systemic policies as part of the problem – it creates a cloud of uncertainty regarding whether it was truly human error or departmental inefficiencies that resulted in Zha-Nae’s death. Piccola has indicated it was a combination of the two, but without more information we must continue to wonder, where did systemic problems end and human error begin?

We can only hope that the new reforms will prevent further tragedies from occurring. We believe the new policies of preventing more than five children from being placed in the same home – as well as a change to how prospective adoptive and foster families are screened, including an assessment of their financial ability to support children – are two good steps in the right direction.

More so, we appreciate the widespread response from private and public entities stepping up to the plate and realizing that helping vulnerable children and families is a complex, multi-faceted problem that requires many people at the table constantly working with one another. These kinds of discussions are crucial, and should be as transparent as possible.

And on the topic of transparency, we must take issue with the abrupt way in which last Friday’s press conference was ended. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, DCYF has a responsibility and an obligation to make themselves available to media inquiries, no matter how long it takes. Cutting off questions after approximately 10 minutes does not do anything to help instill confidence, particularly after pledging to take responsibility for actions that contributed to a young child’s death.


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