State to alter juvenile process

Social services to change procedure for guardians

Death of teen noted in decision

Overhaul is to be done despite the failure of bill

April 14, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

THE LEGISLATION — Maryland social service officials said yesterday that they would reform the agency's largely unregulated process for appointing guardians of abused and neglected children - despite the failure this week of a bill in the General Assembly that would have forced them to make such changes.

The legislation - which would have required the Department of Human Resources to perform a thorough screening of any home where an abused child might be sent to live with a guardian - died in a House committee without coming up for a vote. It was proposed in memory of Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old Baltimore girl who was tortured to death in 2002, allegedly by her guardian ,who is accused of starving and whipping her.

Officials from the department, who supported the bill, said the agency is rewriting its regulations so all prospective guardians would be screened, something that has not been done in the past.

"It is safe to say Ciara Jobes had a bearing on this," said Norris West, spokesman for the Department of Human Resources. "It raised the awareness of the need for home studies and background checks for people who are entrusted to care for children."

In addition, the screening would include a determination of the physical and mental fitness of the guardian, and certification that the home has passed a fire and safety inspection.

West said the department began to look at its regulations after the highly publicized accounts of Ciara's death.

Police say her guardian, Satrina Roberts, savagely beat the girl, 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.

West said his department is rewriting regulations dealing with guardianship and hopes to have them in place by year's end.

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 that foster parents receive state money for support of the child, while guardians do not.

Many caregivers seek guardianship instead of adoption or foster care because the process is much simpler. Guardians are generally not thoroughly interviewed or investigated.

The guardianship bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, passed unanimously in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, but died in the House because of the opposition of a group of state judges.

Gladden could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Maryland Judicial Conference said its members agreed with the spirit of the bill, but opposed its implementation.

"It is certainly fitting, proper and necessary for the local department of Social Services to prepare an appropriate report on the suitability of an individual to become a guardian," read the letter, written March 29. But the letter complained that the way the bill was written, the court would pay the cost for the report if social service workers did not complete the screening in 90 days.

"Local departments should be required to fulfill their original obligation and should not be rewarded for non-compliance with a court order," the letter said.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he did not bring the bill to vote because of the judges' letter.

City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, whose office is prosecuting Roberts, testified in favor of the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Jessamy said she applauds the planned new social service regulations, but said that if the reforms are not passed as a law, there is a chance they might erode over time.

Then she repeated what she told a group of senators: "We still have more restrictions to adopt a dog or any other kind of animal than a child."

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