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Guardian Gets 40 Years For Starving Md. Girl

State's Role Characterized as Lacking

By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page B02

BALTIMORE, Feb. 4 -- The legal guardian of a 15-year-old girl who was starved and beaten to death was sentenced to 40 years in prison Friday by a judge who said everyone involved in the child's case should "search their individual conscience" in an effort to avoid ever repeating such a tragedy.

The body of Ciara Jobes was found, battered and emaciated, on a kitchen floor in a public housing complex in Southeast Baltimore shortly before Christmas 2002. Authorities say she had been savagely beaten, denied food and locked in a room for months, forced to use a hole in a wall as a toilet. Ciara weighed 73 pounds at the time of her death, and there were more than 500 injuries on her body.

In Baltimore Circuit Court, Judge Kaye A. Allison said the girl died after "months of what can only be characterized as torture."

Ciara's guardian, Satrina Roberts, 33, pleaded guilty in November to second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. As Roberts received the maximum sentence possible under the plea agreement, the judge said that the state may have mishandled Ciara's case but that Roberts bore responsibility for the girl's death.

"The system may have been responsible for passive neglect . . . but the system didn't beat Ciara over a period of months" or cause her death, Allison said.

The circumstances of Ciara's death focused attention on the Maryland Department of Social Services and Baltimore's juvenile court system, which first placed Ciara with Roberts in 1998 to protect her from her neglectful and drug-addicted mother. Roberts and Ciara's mother were friends.

Roberts's mental health, however, was never evaluated, even though she was by then on disability because of mental illnesses. And even though Roberts did not qualify as a foster parent, a juvenile court judge in 2000 named her the girl's legal guardian.

"She'll take the fall for this, and it's wrong," Roberts's attorney, Warren Brown, said before the sentence was imposed. "She's not the problem. It was the system."

Warren called the judge who named Roberts Ciara's legal guardian "an accomplice."

After Roberts was sentenced, Brown joined Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and prosecutor Julie Drake at a news conference in support of legislation that would require more stringent evaluation of potential legal guardians. Jessamy said that adopting a pet from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals requires a more extensive background check than being named a legal guardian in Maryland.

The proposal, which is expected to be introduced early next week, would require that a potential guardian submit to a psychiatric examination as well as a follow-up check by the state to ensure that the arrangement is working, said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), a co-sponsor of the bill.

Gladden said that a similar proposal last year stalled in the House, but that, particularly in light of the Roberts case, she is optimistic it will pass. "I don't see any problems with it this year," she said.

Drake, who prosecuted Roberts, said: "If this [proposal] had been in effect, the judge in juvenile court in the Satrina Roberts case would have known that Satrina Roberts had a past mental health history. As it is, we have no reason to think he did know."

Joseph H.H. Kaplan, the judge who in 2000 named Roberts legal guardian, said Friday that Ciara wanted to be with Roberts and that the lawyers and social workers in the case either agreed or had no objection.

"Everybody in the court agreed that that's where she should be, including the ultimate victim herself," Kaplan said, adding that by then the girl had been living with Roberts for many months.

Kaplan said he regretted the outcome of his decision to grant guardianship but added that "you make the best decision that you can under the circumstances. . . . The mother was a friend of Satrina, and that was her request, so it was unanimous. Nobody came in and protested it."

Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.

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