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Finding a safe haven

More kids are entering the foster system, but fewer families are available to take them in

By C.J. Urquico

Imagine that you are a child who does not know where to sleep tonight. Your parents cannot take care of you, and you’ve run out of relatives willing to help feed and shelter your family. You get your only meal from school when you get to attend, which is hit-or-miss, depending on whether the car is running or has fuel.

Your classmates, who show up in clean clothes and with plump cheeks, mock you because the last shower you had was last week at the beach, and washing your clothes was not economically viable. You have parents who prioritize beer or meth over meals.

Imagine that you think this is normal, that you are used to the stench of trash and body odor. Sleeping outdoors and panhandling with your parents is routine to get by and get through, day after day.

Eventually, the services catch up, put you in a shelter or in a foster family until your folks clean up and get their act together. Your young mind processes this as normal because you’ve never experienced a proper family setting.

The best days are when you’ve had enough to eat, and there is a pause on violence at home. The best days are when you are not afraid of a boogeyman, you are satiated, your belly is full, you're wearing clean pajamas and sleep through the night dry, not a raindrop bothering you.

Guam has a desperate childcare problem. Families are giving up their children due to poverty, substance abuse or a combination of both.

There are less than 70 licensed foster families to look after nearly 600 children. The age breakdown is 114 infants/toddlers (0-3), 301 school-age children (4-12), and 151 teens (13-19). There are 279 boys and 287 girls.

This is disproportionally high for an island that is 30 miles at its longest, 8 miles wide, 160,000 people and has a GDP per capita comparable to many midsize first-world cities. Guam is more plagued by a plethora of social problems than most places on the mainland.

“It takes a village” was the theme of this year’s Liberation Day float entry from the Mangilao Mayor’s Office.

Mae Fe D. Muyco is the supervisor of the Home Evaluation and Placement Service Section for the Department of Public Health & Social Services, Division of Children's Wellness, and Bureau of Social Services Administration. Muyco has worked in different parts of government for the past 22 years; however, she returned to DPHSS in 2019 because help was needed there.

“I came back because helping children is my forte. On Nov. 8, 2021, the mayors’ council launched a plan to recruit 19 families, one from each village. We exceeded that number and ended up with 25. We still need more.

“The mayors are aware of issues in their villages, kids who need a home, and families that are having difficulties,” Muyco said.

“The majority of our licensed foster parents come from Harvest House, the military and a few locals. Harvest House does a great job of educating the community. Every last Thursday of each month, there’s an information meeting for prospective foster parents. When people inquire, we send them to Harvest House to attend the session. We collaborate very well with Bethany and Harvest House,” Muyco added.

Harvest House is a nonprofit that provides support for the fostering community. Located in the Harvest Christian Academy’s campus in Mongmong, Harvest House was founded by Bethany Taylor, who leads the organization as its executive director. She calls her organization “a calling from God.”

Taylor and her husband Joshua moved to Guam to become teachers at Harvest over 20 years ago. They were blessed with a daughter born in 2005, but the birthing was perilous for Bethany; she almost lost her life. They learned that they could not have any more biological children because of the risk. In 2009, the couple fostered their first child, a Palauan baby boy named Devin.

“All my life, I wanted to help orphans, but there were not many options on Guam. We found out that foster care was the best fit. When my daughter was three years old, my husband and I researched foster care in Guam. We had a friend who was fostering, and we asked many questions. Three months later, we got our first foster child; he was an 18-month-old ‘shaken baby’ who suffered from severe brain trauma and physical abuse. He was the real inspiration for us to create Harvest House,” said Taylor.

By the time Devin turned 15, the Taylors had fostered over 40 children, most of whom have since reunited with their biological parents. “We started fostering not to adopt; we did it to help families on Guam that are hurting and just needed the extra help. We ended up adopting two kids thus far.”

Harvest house does not house children. It is the first stop for children transitioning to foster care. The children come in, clean up and pick out clothes and snacks at McDonald’s.

The organization recruits, trains and retains foster families. It has a resource room with clothes, shoes, backpacks, essentials for babies and baby furniture.

“Every foster parent gets to shop the resource room with us once a month. They can get anything from shampoo to socks for free. While they’re here, we get to talk to them and share their stories. Helping Guam’s Foster Community is our motto. It’s a foster community that lets everyone get involved and get the help they need,” Taylor said.

Foster families on island receive a monthly stipend ranging from $576.63 for children ages 0-11 to $779.43 for ages 12-17. The amount varies depending on the child’s age and the length of stay. The stipend is a reimbursement, meaning it is not income and is not taxed. In addition, the children get $202.80 (0-11) and $290.76 (12-17) for an annual clothing allowance.

“It really is about community, you have to support the foster child, the foster parent and the biological family who really need to support them so they can get their children back. Also, you have to support Child Protective Services, a government agency that also cares for foster children. Businesses, nonprofits, and individual families also want to do something for the foster community. Not everyone can be a foster parent, but everyone wants to do something to help a foster child.” Taylor said.

Lina McDaniel moved back to Guam in 2014 as an overseas transfer from the University of Phoenix. When the campus closed, she moved to WestCare Pacific Islands for a year and then transferred to the Department of Labor.

When she got divorced in June 2019, she looked at fostering because she’d always wanted to be a mother. Through emergency placement, McDaniel met a baby girl she fell in love with. After a week, the baby was taken from the temporary arrangement. During this time, the infant turned one year old, celebrating with McDaniel.

She reached a crossroads in her life and had to give up her job. This gave her the opportunity to foster the same baby girl who needed her help. She got fully licensed to be a foster parent in November 2021.

McDaniel left her work and found a new job that fits her priority to be a mother to the girl who is turning three in October. “She introduced me to my best self. I am my own best friend now because of her. She saved me more than I saved her,” she said.

“Fostering is not just about taking care of the child. It also involves the biological parent, who has visitation rights. It is part of the process and can often lead to giving support not just to the child but also the parent. Reunification is always the goal,” McDaniel said.

“In the beginning, she would call me ‘You.’ When she’s mad she would call me ‘Ma.’ Then we started potty training, and she called me ‘Mom.’ The first time she called me Mommy, it was just a passing moment she just blurted it out. It felt amazing. This little human who doesn't share my DNA called me a mother. It took a while for her to call me that again, but a few weeks after she started daycare, she called me Mommy regularly. We now have a set routine.”

Routine is paramount for children.

Harvest House comes in a lot. Once a month we get to go shopping there. She sometimes still uses pull-ups. They save me so much money on clothing and staples. And it’s free shopping. Now she can dress herself. She can speak full sentences now, and she can sing nursery rhymes and happy birthday. She can follow along when we are saying grace,” McDaniel said.

Three Squares, Outback and Hafaloha restaurants provide discounts through Harvest House for foster families. The discounts and gift certificates are usually given during special occasions such as Mother’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter.

“Everybody deserves a second chance and sometimes it takes two, three and maybe four chances. So even now, I am prepared for her to reunify with her birth parents. Harvest House provides a lot of resources, not just supplies that foster parents need; they also provide training,” McDaniel said.

“I love what I do, I’m very passionate about it and 13 years ago I wish that there was something like Harvest House. Little by little, we started in my carport, and now even people from Guam and the states make tax-deductible donations to our cause,” Taylor said.

According to Taylor, in a recent article, projections showed that 100 more children will enter the foster care system in 2023.

“We are in their life for a reason, to protect the children. Help the families better themselves. Once we take kids into protective custody, our ultimate goal is reunification,” Muyco said.

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