Health care providers and social service advocates support three bills seeking to open more homes for displaced children on Guam.
Introduced by Sen. Mary Camacho Torres, Bill 135-35 would update Guam’s Family Foster Home standards (Guam Public Law 23-143)—allowing a foster family to take in more children than the current limit of six; while Bill 134-35 provides a uniform legal framework for caregivers seeking custody and visitation rights.
Camacho is also the co-author of Sen. Therese Terlaje’s Bill 159-35, which would increase the maximum capacity of emergency children’s shelters beyond 12 in order to house a greater number of children who are vulnerable to abuse or neglect.
“When children cannot remain with their birth parents, placing them with grandparents and other relatives reduces future trauma and mitigates the impact of past trauma for grandparents to provide child care for their grandchildren,” Public Health Director Linda U. DeNorcey said in support of Bill 134-35 which was public heard on Thursday.
Under Guam law, a grandparent may seek visitation under certain circumstances which usually involve some disruption of the family. However, these broad descriptions do not provide a reliable indicator of whether nonparental visitation (or custody) should be allowed.
The criteria of Bill 134, in contrast, focus on factors used to decide whether visitation or custody should be granted, particularly the closeness of the relationship between the child and the nonparent.
Both measures respond to the increasing rate of children removed from their parents’ care on Guam.
According to Child Protective Services at the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, 257 children are currently in foster placement—a substantial increase from previous years.
With just 33 licensed foster families and short-term shelters often filled to capacity, there aren’t enough homes for children who need it.
Torres said Bill 135-35 would help remedy this demand by permitting a family foster home to care for more than the limit, if approved by the department.
DeNorcey said the proposed expansion would help keep siblings together, allow a parenting youth in foster care to stay with their child, and enable children with meaningful relationships to remain with the family.
“Sibling relationships are important and critical to foster children who experience chaotic circumstances. Children who have been abused or neglected, or whose families have been ripped apart, face heightened levels of emotional stress in such circumstances learn to depend on each other to cope with their common problems,” DeNorcey said.
“Guam has a crisis of children being mistreated, harmed, abused, or even abandoned. Sadly, we lack the needed foster homes and shelters to care for the most vulnerable on our island,” said Bethany Taylor, director of Harvest House and Foster Parent.
“Over time, I hope our island can address all the other issues here, but one thing the Legislature can do right now is amend the standards for foster homes to be licensed for more children in their homes.”
“I want to thank CPS, our foster families, and those on the front lines fighting this crisis,” Torres said. “I trust my colleagues will support these critical measures as they make their way to the floor.”
As for Bill 159-35, Terlaje said she aims to pass the legislation in time for the October opening of the new 7,000 sq. ft. group facility in Barrigada Heights. I Guma Mina’åse’ Sr. Mary Brigid Perez, R.S.M., will operate in addition to the current Alee shelter for children which houses a maximum of 12, and alongside 33 Foster homes, to help address the 267 children referred to CPS in 2019 alone.
“This is not the entire solution to protecting children from abuse in our island, but it is a powerful tool to aid CPS in moving children to immediate safety,” Terlaje said.
Former First Lady Christine Calvo speaking on her encounter with a young child, who had health issues and had been abandoned, spoke of how it influenced her work with the Rigalu Foundation.
“Just as I’m sure, the story of that 4-year-old girl left Senator Terlaje with some sleepless nights – the story of this little baby’s life kept me awake at night,” Calvo said.
DeNorcey said CPS social workers have often expressed that another group home similar to the Alee Shelter would be ideal for foster children so they can gradually transition children into a foster home.
“This can alleviate future breakdowns in placement and also avoid multiple placements of foster children. In addition, it will allow the CPS social worker ample time to conduct a thorough home assessment with other caregivers before placing the child in a safe home,” she said.
“We all want to provide safety for children and remove them immediately from harm. This bill can immediately double the current number of children who can be housed in a temporary shelter until CPS can reunite the children with their families, or find permanent homes for the children,” Terlaje said.