40 years given in death of girl, 15

Woman, 33, was guardian of teen, who died of abuse

`I'm sorry I hurt ... your family'

Prosecution, defense urge reform of social services

February 05, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Rejecting a defense argument that city judges and social workers "aided and abetted" the horrific child-abuse death of 15- year-old Ciara Jobes, a city Circuit Court judge sentenced the girl's caretaker yesterday to 40 years in prison.

Judge Kaye A. Allison recommended that Satrina Roberts serve her sentence at Patuxent Institution, a correctional facility with mental health services.

Roberts, 33, sat with her head bowed throughout most of the hearing, as the prosecutor and her lawyer recounted in graphic detail the circumstances of Ciara's death in December 2002 and the story of how the girl came to be under the legal guardianship of Roberts.

Afterward, both attorneys joined with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to call for legislative reforms to a system that one prosecutor said was so broken that "any warm, breathing body standing there in court" can be awarded guardianship of even the most vulnerable child.

In court, defense attorney Warren A. Brown argued that Roberts should serve only a third of the maximum sentence because a judge who awarded Roberts guardianship of Ciara and the city Department of Social Services, which failed to ensure the safety of a child in need, shared culpability.

Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake said Roberts was mentally ill, and that Ciara never should have been placed with her. But Drake also said that Roberts "is the one who should be held accountable for Ciara's misery and death."

Roberts pleaded guilty Nov. 18 to charges of second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Yesterday, the judge said that although all involved in Ciara's case should search their consciences, Roberts could not shift the blame to others.

"The system's mistakes are tragic, but murder is criminal," Allison said before handing down the 40-year prison term.

When given the chance to address the court, Roberts turned to Ciara's maternal grandmother, Iva Cruse, and said, "I'm sorry I hurt you and your family. ... I love you, too." Earlier, Cruse had looked at "Trina," a woman she said she once considered a daughter, and told her that she forgave her and still loved her.

But then Cruse asked the judge to prevent Roberts from coming home and "doing this to another family."

Ciara Shanette Lavonte Jobes, who earned A's as a middle-schooler and dreamed of becoming a pharmacist, was found dead Dec. 11, 2002, on Roberts' kitchen floor in East Baltimore. She weighed 73 pounds, and her emaciated body was covered with as many as 700 wounds and scars.

Although Ciara was enrolled at Patterson High School, she never attended school that fall. Roberts had kept her locked in an unfurnished, unheated room with a hole in the wall to use for a toilet, police reports said.

Ciara had been living with Roberts since 1998, at the request of the girl's mother, who was dying of AIDS. But Roberts had been diagnosed years earlier with bipolar schizophrenic disorder and had been receiving Social Security disability benefits since 1995 for mental illness.

Instead of becoming the girl's foster mother, which would have required many applications and assessments, Roberts sought to become Ciara's legal guardian.

Under Maryland law, all that Roberts had to do to become Ciara's guardian was convince a judge that she would be a responsible caretaker.

In January 2000, Roberts, Ciara's mother and a lawyer assigned to Ciara told Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan that Roberts should become Ciara's guardian.

A Department of Social Services representative attended but did not object to the plan, though the agency had rejected a bid by Roberts to become the girl's foster mother.

Kaplan granted the guardianship request, and DSS soon after closed its file on Ciara Jobes.

In an interview yesterday, Kaplan said he made his decision because everyone - DSS, Ciara's lawyer and her mother - agreed it was the best plan for Ciara. He said that if anyone had expressed opposition, he probably would not have placed Ciara with Roberts. Kaplan said the defense effort to shift the blame for Ciara's death to the court and to DSS was unfair.

"She is responsible for her own actions," he said.

Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the city's Social Services Department, said Ciara's case "really did point to some problems."

West said the department has begun conducting mental health evaluations on some prospective guardians in Baltimore, and he expected that the practice would eventually become statewide policy.

"[Guardianship] had not traditionally been a DHR responsibility," he said. "It really is an arena of the court. But we decided to reach out farther. We've got to find a way to make everyone responsible for the welfare of our kids."

At a news conference after sentencing, Jessamy, Drake and Brown said a change in state law is the only way to make sure no other child suffers Ciara Jobes' fate. Jessamy said she would endorse a measure that would require an investigative report on a person asking for guardianship before a judge can grant the request.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is drafting a bill that would require DSS to prepare the report, which would include a complete physical and mental health history and criminal and child protective services background check of the prospective guardian, as well as a home study.

Gladden said her bill would require that the court check in on the child six months after awarding guardianship.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, also a city Democrat, agreed to cross-file the bill in the House.

Gladden said she has a picture of Ciara in her office "to remind me that sometimes I have to make decisions for people who can't speak for themselves."

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