Girl's death spurs bill

In response to the torture death of Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old Baltimore girl who was allegedly killed by her mentally ill guardian, state legislators are introducing a bill this week that aims to regulate who can be awarded permanent custody of abused and neglected children.

The legislation comes after public outcry over Ciara's death, which led city and state politicians to demand answers from state welfare workers.

Senate Bill 693 targets a loophole in Maryland's guardianship process, which has little or no oversight. It 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.

"All the things in this bill really should have been routine a long time ago," said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat.

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 compensation: Foster parents receive state money for support of the child, while guardians do not. But many care givers seek guardianship instead of adoption or foster care because the process is much simpler.

Guardians generally are 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. They would likely include background checks for everyone in the home, a determination of the physical and mental fitness of the guardian, and certification that the home has passed a fire and safety inspection, officials said.

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 Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the bill Wednesday. 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.

Charlie Cooper, administrator of the state-funded Citizens Review Board for Children, said it is vital to investigate every home before a child is placed there permanently.

"I hope that we can codify what should be in practice anyway," said Cooper, who helped write the legislation. "Because we haven't done this before, we have stories like Ciara Jobes. Some of this could have been prevented."

Gladden said the lax standards are the reason Ciara's guardian, Satrina Roberts, was able to gain custody of the girl, even though Roberts suffered from severe mental and emotional disorders.

When authorities discovered Ciara's body in December 2002, she was emaciated, had whip marks covering much of her body and showed signs of violent sexual abuse.

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. Roberts is charged with killing Ciara and could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted. She is seeking to be declared criminally not responsible because of mental illness.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, whose office is prosecuting Roberts, said her assistant state's attorneys often see the gruesome result of an ineffective guardianship system.

"It is inconceivable that the review process necessary to adopt a stray dog is more stringent than the process in place for guardianships," Jessamy said.

The proposed legislation would not specify what standards must be in place. Instead, it would be left up to the Department of Human Resources to decide "the suitability of the individual to become guardian of the child," the bill reads.

In the past, the department has said that guardianship should be regulated and enforced by the courts, not the department. But more recently, spokesman Norris P. West said his agency supports the bill.

"It's good because we think it has the potential to close the gap when children move from social services to permanent guardianship," West said. "Once guardianship is granted, the role of social services ends, so you want to make sure that before you close a case, the child is in good hands permanently."

West estimated that enforcing the standards would cost the agency $1 million annually. That cost would probably strain the department's budget, he said.

"It will become a matter of redirecting our resources," West said.

The bill would also give the court the option to review any or all guardianship cases each year and see the child. Currently, if a judge wants to review a case, the child does not have to be present.