Suit alleges city agency to blame in girl's death

Social services neglectful, Jobes' grandmother says

August 31, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's child welfare officials, long criticized as neglecting the people they are charged with protecting, were sued yesterday in city Circuit Court for $25 million by the grandmother of a 15-year-old girl who was starved and beaten to death in 2002.

Iva Cruse, grandmother of Ciara Jobes, filed a complaint yesterday alleging that the Maryland Department of Human Resources, the Baltimore Department of Social Services and others were neglectful, and that Ciara's situation had "all the red flags of child abuse."

Also named in the suit is Satrina Roberts, Ciara's former guardian who is charged in the girl's death. It accuses her of assault, false imprisonment, negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

Roberts has been charged with first-degree murder and child abuse. Her trial was set to begin yesterday, but was postponed until Nov. 19 at the request of her lawyer, Warren A. Brown, who is awaiting a doctor's evaluation concerning Roberts' mental fitness. While she has been determined to be competent to stand trial, Brown contends that Roberts -- who has received a diagnosis of bipolar schizophrenia disorder -- is not criminally responsible for the girl's death.

After Ciara's death, city and state elected officials questioned how she was able to slip through the safety net of several agencies, including social services, schools, police and courts. Roberts had been receiving Social Security disability benefits since 1995 for mental illness.

Ciara's case led the Department of Human Resources to announce this year that it would reform the agency's largely unregulated process for appointing guardians of abused and neglected children.

When Ciara was discovered by police on Roberts' kitchen floor in December 2002, she was emaciated, had 700 wounds across her body and showed signs of violent sexual abuse. She had been locked in a room with no furniture or heat, and was forced to use a hole in a wall for a toilet, police said.

"Employees [of the Department of Social Services] made home visits and had discussions with ... Roberts or should have conducted home visits, especially since [Ciara] stopped attending school for the year 2002," according to the lawsuit.

It also said that Roberts told social services workers that she was unable to handle Ciara, and that she used physical punishment. They "failed to investigate the extent of the physical force used and to remove the child from [Roberts'] custody and care," the suit said.

Norris West, spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, which oversees the Department of Social Services, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

"We haven't seen it, and of course, we can't comment on it," West said.

The suit documents some of Roberts' history with Ciara. The girl went to live with Roberts in 1998 at the request of Ciara's mother, Jackie Cruse, who was dying of AIDS. She began missing school, until 2002, when she did not attend at all.

Mark Herman, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said he is likely to add defendants as he receives more information. "We will ask questions of everyone who crossed the path of this little girl," Herman said. "That includes the school and health care providers."

In May, Dr. Stephen Goldberg, a state psychiatrist, found Roberts competent to stand trial, but nevertheless called it "shocking" that state officials gave Roberts custody of the child while she suffered from a severe mental illness.

The doctor at the state-run Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center concluded that social services workers knew Roberts was abusing Ciara, but did nothing to stop it. In addition to diagnosing Roberts as a bipolar schizophrenic, Goldberg wrote that she consumed three to six alcoholic drinks a day.

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