Holding up a form used to adopt stray dogs, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy told state legislators yesterday that the standards to adopt a pet in Maryland are more stringent than to gain guardianship of an abused child.
Jessamy and others testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of Senate Bill 693, which aims to regulate who can be awarded permanent custody of abused and neglected children. Currently, there are no standards in the state's guardianship laws.
The bill is in response to the torture death of Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old Baltimore girl who police say was killed by her mentally ill guardian in 2002. The guardian, Satrina Roberts, is accused of starving and whipping Ciara, as well as inflicting violent sexual abuse.
"I have with me the requirements for adopting a pet from the SPCA. The requirements for becoming a child's guardian are less stringent," said Jessamy, whose office is prosecuting Roberts.
Committee members are likely to vote on the legislation next week.
It targets a loophole in Maryland's guardianship process, which has little or no oversight. The bill would require that the Department of Human Resources do a thorough screening of any home where a child might be sent to live with a guardian.
Department representatives testified in favor of the bill and answered pointed questions from senators who wanted to know why the agency hadn't try to implement guardianship standards in the past.
"It is very troubling that this comes to us after the death of a young lady," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the committee.
Stephanie Pettaway, adoptions manager for the department, said she believed her office proposed guardianship legislation in 1987, but she could not specify its provisions.
In Maryland, the process to become a foster or adoptive parent is extensive, but no state laws regulate guardianship.
Guardianship allows full custody of a child by order of the court. A key difference between foster care and guardianship is that foster parents receive state money for support of the child, while guardians do not. Many caregivers seek guardianship instead of adoption or foster care because the process is much simpler.
Guardians are generally not thoroughly interviewed or investigated. They are awarded permanent custody, and after custody is awarded, social service workers do not check on the child.
Under the legislation, the standards for guardianship would be established by the Department of Human Resources, but would include background checks for everyone in the home, a determination of the physical and mental fitness of the guardian and a home study.
Before custody is awarded by the court, a social services worker would complete a report based on a home inspection and give it to a juvenile judge for review.
The bill would also encourage the court to review guardianship cases after placement and to require that the child be present for the review. Judges may review cases now, but the child does not have to be present. If passed, the law would affect more than 600 children each year who are taken from abusive or neglectful parents and given to a permanent guardian.
At yesterday's hearing, the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, held up a life-size portrait of Ciara, saying she wants to close the gap in the guardianship law.
"There was a young girl named Ciara who used to look like this," Gladden said, showing the portrait. "She used to go to school and get great grades. But she stopped going to school, and by the time someone checked on her, she was dead."