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