Safeguard all kids

March 10, 2004

WHAT'S THE difference between placing a ward of the state into foster care or with a guardian? One placement is a way station for a child who at least temporarily cannot live at home; the other is a permanent home.

The state requires foster care families to pass rigorous tests and background checks, performed by the Department of Human Resources, yet demands no such tests for guardians. The judges use their impressions and wisdom to decide the permanent placement. It isn't enough, as the life story of Ciara Jobes shows.

If someone had asked a few more questions about Satrina Roberts, the woman who gave up on becoming a foster parent mid-process and instead asked to be guardian to the Baltimore teen-ager, Ciara might still be alive. The 15-year-old was repeatedly tortured in her home until she died. Ms. Roberts, who was receiving disability benefits for severe mental problems, is seeking to be declared mentally unfit to stand trial in the case. It seems unlikely that a judge who knew Ms. Roberts was so unsteady would have placed Ciara with her.

Nothing can bring Ciara back, but much more must be done to prevent another child's suffering. A good start is outlined in a bill proposed by state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, which has its first hearing today. It directs DHR to establish standards for guardianship, which officials said would include background, physical and mental checks of prospective guardians and safety checks of their residences. Judges would be required to consider the investigation's results along with the best interests of the child and other factors. A pending amendment would allow the judge to order the child's appearance with the guardian at periodic review hearings, to seek direct evidence of proper placement.

The proposed safeguards are needed because the state's lawbooks are mum on what is expected of a guardian. There is little in the law on screening prospective foster parents, either, though DHR already has established guidelines and standards for them.

Also, a foster child is an open social services case: The caregiver gets paid a stipend, the child has access to state health benefits and the department visits the home regularly. But once a child is in guardianship, the department closes the case - no money, and no follow-up visits.

Raising the bar for guardianships will cost money, of course. DHR estimates the reporting tab at $1 million per year, based on $15,000 per investigation by an outside firm. The department was less sure how much it would cost to hire more staffers and do it in-house. The legislative analyst's report has not yet been released.

But this would be money well spent. These children, often pulled from abusive or neglectful parents, deserve the best new start possible. They should be guaranteed a safe, stable, caring environment.

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