Jobes case highlights guardian loopholes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A legal loophole that allowed an unfit mother to gain custody of Ciara Jobes - the 15-year-old girl tortured to death in one of the city's worst cases of child abuse - is an unregulated problem that exposes Maryland's neediest children to a guardianship system with little or no oversight.

The Ciara Jobes case has been a political issue in recent weeks, with the Baltimore City Council and state legislators calling hearings to ask for answers in connection with the girl's killing. And last week, a spokesman for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said that the governor has asked state child welfare officials to "put in a whole new system" to prevent other child abuse deaths.

"Where did the ball drop?" said the spokesman, Greg Massoni. "Who signed off saying this situation was fine? Some process must be put in place to check on these kids."

How Roberts obtained guardianship of Ciara - after she was denied status as a foster mother - has highlighted a flaw in Baltimore's child welfare system. Although Roberts was granted guardianship of a child considered to be a ward of the state, she had not been fully screened by social workers.

"There are no statutes regulating [guardianship]," said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch, who is in charge of juvenile matters and is one of three judges in the city who awards guardianship of children. "I'm not aware of any specific standards other than our practices."

While guardianship of children is a process with stringent screening in states such as California, Arizona and Alaska, it has little regulation in Maryland, according to officials.

Investigations rare

Maryland law says courts have the authority to order an investigation by the Department of Social Services or another agency before guardianship is awarded, but they are not required to do so. In Ciara's case, the court did not order an investigation.

Massoni said he is surprised at the lax nature of the guardianship process.

"I am amazed anybody could become a guardian without that [investigation] happening," he said.

Roberts is charged with killing Ciara and could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted. Her trial is to begin Wednesday, and she is seeking to be declared criminally not responsible because of mental illness.

Police say Roberts savagely beat Ciara, denied her food and locked her in an unfurnished and unheated room for months, forcing her to use a hole in the wall as a toilet.

When police found Ciara shortly before Christmas, her body had as many as 700 wounds - most of them whip marks - and signs of recent, violent sexual abuse. She was enrolled in Patterson High, but had not been in school all semester.

Local and state social service officials say they are not involved with screening guardians before custody is awarded, and they do not check on the child after guardianship has been granted.

"Guardianship is not an issue we deal with," said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, the agency charged with protecting children.

A spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, the agency that oversees Social Services, said any guardianship standards in Baltimore would be regulated and enforced by the courts, not by social service workers.

"We don't have a perspective on that," said department spokesman Norris West. "It is a court matter."

Ciara's death in December sparked national attention and a litany of concerns from local officials, who questioned why several city and state agencies involved in the case were unable to protect her.

The City Council called a hearing on the issue and passed a resolution stating that Ciara was "neglected by school officials, ignored by neighbors, and abandoned by the very system that had a moral and legal obligation to protect her."

Not 'detailed enough'

One of the issues touched on at the City Council hearing this month was the guardianship process - and problems surrounding it.

"This incident should teach us that our policy isn't detailed enough," said Charlie Cooper, administrator of the state-funded Citizens Review Board for Children, who attended the hearing. "What are our standards?"

In Baltimore City, the court system runs a criminal background history on a prospective guardian, and also checks to ensure the person has no history of abusing children, said Judge Welch.

Court officials do not regularly order an investigation of the home, finances or health of a prospective guardian, he said.

Guardianship does not mean termination of parental rights, and is described in the Annotated Code of Maryland as "an award by a court ... of the authority to make ordinary and emergency decisions as to the child's care, welfare, education, physical and mental health."

Unlike the rules for guardianship, Maryland's laws governing foster care, kinship care and adoption of children in the state's care are stringent, involving a long process with many applications, assessments and background checks.

Del. Talmadge Branch and other state legislators are holding a hearing this month to address gaps in the system that failed Ciara.

He said he will explore changing state law or social service policies to increase the screening process for guardians.

"There has to be more oversight in terms of who we put children in the hands of," Branch said.

In states such as California, a background check must be completed before guardianship is granted. The process includes a home visit and other checks that need to be undertaken before a judge makes a final decision.

For Roberts, life with Ciara began in 1998, when the girl came to live with her at the request of Ciara's mother, Jackie Cruse, who later died of AIDS.

In November 1999, Roberts was rejected by the Social Services Department's foster care program.

A caseworker noted in her file that Roberts had been cooperating with the foster program and that her application looked promising, but Roberts abruptly ended contact with the agency, resulting in the termination of her application.

No objection lodged

Two months later, in January 2000, Roberts persuaded a Circuit Court judge to make her Ciara's guardian. A Social Services caseworker at the guardianship hearing did not object to the proposed custody.

Roberts' mental health was not checked by the courts or Social Services because it is not their policy, though records indicate that since 1995, she had been receiving federal disability aid for a diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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