Adoptive Mother Arrested after 9-year-old with Special Needs Dies in Tub

Adoptive Mother Arrested after 9-year-old with Special Needs Dies in Tub January 20, 2019
Warwick Police Department

An adoptive mother of 8 children with special needs was arrested for the negligent death of her nine-year-old daughter. The girl, who had cerebral palsy, was found unresponsive in a bathtub by her older brother. Her brother told police his mother asked him to care for his sister because she was sick with the flu. He left her in the bathtub for more than eight hours. Police arrested Michele Rothgeb and charged her with cruelty to or neglect of a child.

According to the Providence Journal, police responded to a call on January 3 of an unresponsive child at Rothgeb’s home. Rothgeb’s 15-year-old son called police after finding his 9-year-old sister laying face down in the bathtub.

When police arrived, they said the house stunk of urine and feces. They found the home cluttered with garbage, debris, and animal feces. Police noted that bugs were on the ceiling. There was so much garbage on the floor that officers found it difficult to walk through the home.

First responders removed the lifeless body of the girl from the bathtub and transported her to the hospital where she later died.

Police began their investigation by looking through the home. In the room of the 9-year-old, police said they found a soiled mattress that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in months. Another bed in the room had netting around the mattress. The second mattress was also soiled and had animal droppings on the bed.

After searching the home, police interviewed the fifteen-year-old boy and Rothgeb. According to Rothgeb, she told her oldest son, who is autistic, to watch the children.

Rothgeb told police she was sick with the flu and didn’t have the strength to care for the eight children. She admitted to being sick for at least two weeks.

Rothgeb’s 15-year-old son provided the police with critical details about what transpired that day. He said that early that morning, around 8:30 am, he saw his sister, Zah-Nae, crawling from her bedroom to the bathroom. He said vomit covered her body.

When he saw his sister covered in vomit, he picked her up and took her to the bathroom. He said he gave her a bath to clean up the mess. After finishing the bath, he said he filled the tub with 2-3 inches of water for her to play in.

While she sat in the bath playing, the teen said he took care of his other siblings. He admitted to not checking on Zah-Nae again until noon.

At noon, he said he found the water drained. He gave Zah-Nae a sippy cup and put 2-3 more inches of water in the tub.

Around 2 pm, the teen left the house to retrieve his other siblings from the bus. When they arrived home, he told police he started making dinner.

At 4:30 pm, 8 hours after Zah-Nae was first placed in the bathtub, another sibling found her facedown and unresponsive in the tub. After seeing her lying face down, the 15-year-old called 911.

When police finished interviewing the teen, police arrested Rothgeb for the neglect of the girl.

According to county officials, child welfare workers previously investigated Rothgeb on suspicion of neglect months earlier. They visited her home in January 2018. At the visit, Rothgeb refused to allow social workers to go upstairs.

Following Rothgeb’s arrest, Youth and Families Director Trista Piccola held a press conference to discuss the situation. Piccola admitted she couldn’t explain how the eight children ended up in such deplorable conditions. She also could not say why social workers never checked Rothgeb’s second floor.

Piccola said that as a result, the department placed the social worker on administrative leave. She also suspended two other staff members connected to the case.

When the press asked Piccola why the county would allow a single woman to adopt eight children, Piccola couldn’t answer.  She said the case against Rothgeb is not indicative of how their foster and adoptive parents treat their children.

At Rothgeb’s arraignment on Monday, January 14, her attorney’s asked for her release on recognizance. However, the judge set her bail at $25,000. He told the court there is a strong possibility that prosecutors will upgrade her charges to homicide.

The seven other children in Rothgeb’s custody were removed from her home. The county said the children were placed with other foster families. Piccola said the children would all receive services and therapy to recover from the abuse and neglect inflicted on them by Rothgeb.

The judge ordered that Rothgeb have no contact with the seven children.

In response to Zah-Nae’s death, the state child advocate formed a special panel to investigate her death. The advocate works independently to oversee the safety of children in state foster care custody said the death warranted it’s own investigation.

So many questions remain in the death of Zah-Nae.

Why did the county allow a single woman to adopt eight children with disabilities?

Why did they not follow-up and request access to the second floor of the house?

How long did Rothgeb allow her 15-year-old to supervise the children? The condition of the home doesn’t seem consistent with Rothgeb only being sick for a few weeks.

As her case moves forward, we will update with details as they come in.


*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. Her freelance work is featured on Upworthy, Huffington Post, Yahoo Parents, Mamamia, Daily Beast, Cafe Stir, Newsweek, Jezebel, and The Daily Mail. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.

She co-hosts the YouTube show, “The Smoking Nun,” with Kyle Curtis. The show airs weekly and tackles pseudoscience, current events, and crime stories.

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  • persephone

    I can imagine the social workers thinking, “Nobody else wants these kids, let her have them.” And then avoided dealing with the fallout.

  • This is a clear cut case of abuse and neglect. It makes me wonder, however, what kind of help single parents can recievie during a time of sudden ilness like flu. I remember my mum using her last bits of strength to care for me and my sister whenever the three of us came down with something. My dad worked and because he had less exposure to our germs (and later flu vax at work) rarely got ill. But I don’t remember him taking sick days to care for us 3 (that was perfectly possible in Poland).