Safe homes for all

April 08, 2004

ON PAPER, it's harder to adopt a stray dog from a Maryland animal shelter than to become the permanent guardian of an abused child. That's what Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said last month while testifying in support of a bill to set tougher standards for guardians approved by the state to care for abused children.

This loophole needs to be closed before another child dies in the care of a guardian who likely shouldn't have been awarded that status in the first place. That's what happened to Ciara Jobes, the Baltimore teen-ager who was tortured and killed in 2002. Her court-appointed guardian, accused in the crime, is seeking to be declared mentally unfit to stand trial because of a history of severe mental problems.

The guardianship bill sailed through the state Senate and awaits a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. It would direct the Department of Human Resources to set standards for guardianship as it has for foster parents. It also would add a requirement that foster care applicants be screened; DHR already does this, but is not required to by law. It would affect about 445 state children each year, according to the department.

Yet the loophole-filling bill itself has a loophole. The bill would give DHR 90 days to produce a home assessment, and criminal background check and health histories on the adults who live there, but would permit a judge to approve guardianship after the 90 days whether or not the reports were complete. Theoretically, the department could stall, or could blame short staffing for every such late report. This needs to be fixed.

The cost to the department would be $164,000 in the next fiscal year, according to the Department of Legislative Services. It's worth it.

Guardianship, like adoption, is permanent; the child's case is closed and there is no follow-up. Maryland needs a law that helps ensure its abused, hurting children are placed with guardians who can and will care for them. This bill is a good first step.

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