State steps in for kids

April 22, 2004

MARYLAND'S CUSTODIAN of children in crisis was wise to quickly step in after a much-needed bill to regulate guardianship failed in the General Assembly.

The Department of Human Resources says it will rewrite regulations covering children in its care to require screening of prospective permanent guardians, be they family or friends. The background checks, expected to be much like those in place for prospective foster care parents, will greatly help judges deciding these most important placements. One might wonder why DHR doesn't already have these rules - after all, guardianship is just as permanent as adoption, which requires jumping through scores of hoops. The department says its awareness was raised - as was that of many others - by the grisly story of Baltimore teen-ager Ciara Jobes, who was repeatedly tortured until she died in 2002. Her court-appointed guardian, accused in the crime, is asking to be declared mentally unfit to stand trial because of chronic severe mental problems.

Many layers of the public welfare system are finally working to ensure that Ciara's tragedy is never repeated. The decision to change the guardianship rules came out of internal workgroup sessions led by DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe. Separately, judges and defenders at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center have been kicking around ideas for change; they should start requesting background checks immediately. And state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden plans to revise and reintroduce the bill to set into code exactly what the courts should consider, next session.

All must work to ensure that guardian prospects are law-abiding and mentally fit to care for children, and that their homes are safe and welcoming. These kids, many of whom are refugees from unstable family situations, already have had their fair share of trouble; they deserve a good home.

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