By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
For a small island that is typically characterized as a family-oriented community, the rising number of children entering the foster care system is disquieting.
Children are removed from their households that are found to be unsafe. Some are abandoned at birth. Others graduate out of the system when they turn 18, unable to experience normal family life.
The number of foster children on Guam grew from 247 in 2020 to 600 this year. With only 70 licensed foster care homes on Guam, several displaced children wind up getting stuck in the foster care system.
“That is a sad state of affairs,” said Sen. Mary Torres, who authored several bills that seek to address the foster care crisis on Guam.
A social worker, who requested not to be named, attributed the mounting number of foster children to an increase in drug use and substance abuse on Guam.
“Sometimes we get calls in the middle of the night asking to rescue kids from their erratic drug-addicted parents,” the social worker said. “The ideal situation is to house them with their other relatives to lessen the shock and disorientation, but some families are not willing to take them in.”
Public Law 35-34, which was enacted in 2019 and also authored by Torres, lifted the limit on the number of foster children per home. Prior to this law, a family was allowed to take in only up to six foster children.
When children must be removed from their homes, the ultimate goal is to eventually reunite them with their families.
“That has always been the idea of Child Protective Services, but there are situations that are so egregious that the children should never be returned. This whole drug epidemic is exacerbating the situation,” Torres said.
In April, Torres introduced Bill 299 which would add child abuse and violence as legal grounds for terminating parental rights. Under Guam law, parental rights may be terminated if the court finds that the parent abandoned the child, raped the other parent resulting in the conception of the child, or is unable to parent because of mental illness or mental deficiency.
Bill 299, co-sponsored by 11 senators, would expand the list to include aggravated circumstances such as physical or sexual abuse of the child, a felony assault that result in serious bodily injury to the child, murder or manslaughter of another child of the parent, solicitation, or conspiracy to commit murder or manslaughter.
“Many states have established those thresholds for accelerating permanent placement so that the children are open for adoption as opposed to languishing or trying to return them to their homes,” Torres said.
The bill would also update Guam’s timeline for permanency planning to comply with present federal standards. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, state welfare agencies must file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months in order to receive federal reimbursement for foster care, adoption, and kinship guardianship assistance.
Bill 299-36 would require Guam’s Child Protective Services to petition the court for termination of parental rights if the child has been under its care for more than a year. The bill provides an exception for parents engaged in services (including treatment for substance use disorder, mental health concerns, or parenting skills) or if CPS has documented a compelling reason not to terminate.
“Bill 299 will help ensure that infants and children no longer languish in the foster care system unnecessarily; and that they have the opportunity to find permanent, loving homes as soon as possible—despite their past traumas,” Melanie Brennan, acting director of CPS and director of the Department of Youth Affairs, stated in a press release from Torres’ office.
In July last year, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero signed into law Bill 108-36 which streamlines the adoption process and incorporates adoption agencies into the process.
“There are families that want to adopt these children but there are barriers. We are looking to reduce the timelines to make it more conducive for families to adopt,” Torres said. “We have a lot of kids now who are open for adoption. But because of the laws that pose barriers to permanent placement, they can’t get to that finish line when they can be adopted to families.”
The goal is not just to find foster homes for displaced children but to find the right homes for them.
In December, the governor signed Torres’ Bill 206-36 requiring all child placement agencies to be licensed by the Department of Public Health and Social Services following the implementation of interim rules.
The bill, which is now Public Law 36-68, seeks to ensure that any entity involved in the placement of these children is also held to high standards for safe physical facilities, procedures for the report and resolution of violations, background checks and the proper retention of records.
“With the standards and priorities clearly articulated in Bill 206-36, I am confident that the DPHSS has the tools it needs to draft and implement these urgent interim regulations expeditiously and in a manner that properly accounts for the specific needs and customs of our community and, of course, the primacy of our children's health, safety and welfare,” the governor said in her signing message.
In March, the governor issued an executive order expanding Child Care Eligibility through the establishment of Prugråman i Pinilan i Famagu’on Guåhan. The $17.2 million program provides funding to the island’s child care providers to expand local child care resources
“We recognize that on Guam child care doesn't always occur in licensed child care settings, but oftentimes is provided by family. While we previously provided grant funding to stabilize licensed child care providers, Prugråman i Pinilan is really intended to capture the deeply cultural ways in which child care is provided in Guam,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio. “Prugråman i Pinilan will allow even more families the access and choice to benefit from child-care funding and direct critical resources to providers caring for vulnerable children, including foster children and children with disabilities.”
The social worker, who requested anonymity, welcomes the government leaders’ move to fix the foster care law and fund the foster care system. However, she said, such actions do not address the root of the crisis. “The growing drug and substance abuse on Guam— that is the cause of the problem that exposes children to the unsavory home environment. This is a serious problem that calls for a solid solution.”