For many of us, home is a sacred place. A shelter of calm. A refuge in times of trouble. That place we can go, where no matter what happens in the world, we are safe and we are loved.
But for hundreds on our island, “home” is anything but safe — and some of the biggest victims in the home are the smallest.
Children in crisis
Right now, 599 children have been displaced from their homes due to physical abuse, sexual assault, or neglect. That’s an additional 125 kids in Guam’s foster care system compared to October of last year.
According to Child Protective Services, this increase has been linked to greater awareness in the community, with more individuals contacting CPS to refer children in need. But that doesn’t make the consequences any less devastating.
Based on data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most perpetrators of child abuse or maltreatment are parents of the child, accounting for 77% of all child abusers in the United States. This abuse — especially when experienced in early childhood — can have long-term behavioral and psychological consequences including depression, anxiety, higher prevalence of suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance use, and juvenile delinquency (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2019).
What’s worse, children who have experienced abuse and neglect are more likely to abuse their own children compared to those who were not maltreated (Yang, Font, Ketchum, & Kim, 2018). As the adage goes — we repeat what we do not repair.
Shifting the paradigm with Bill 299
So how do we repair?
Although CPS works tirelessly to place children in need, we need new standards in our Child Protective Act. That’s why I introduced Bill 299, joined by 11 of my colleagues as co-sponsors.
Drafted in close collaboration with CPS, Bill 299 would include certain acts of violence as legal grounds for terminating parental rights. In other words, if a parent engaged in physical or sexual abuse of the child, a felony assault that resulted in serious bodily injury, attempted murder, or manslaughter, CPS must file a petition to terminate parental rights.
Recognizing the traumatizing impact and potential consequences of long-term foster care, Bill 299 would also update Guam’s timelines for permanency planning to comply with present federal standards — ensuring children do not languish in the foster care system unnecessarily. To this end, the bill would require CPS to terminate parental rights if the child has been under its care for over a year unless the parents are in treatment or CPS has documented a compelling reason not to terminate.
These are not groundbreaking requirements. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have these same provisions, making Guam one of the only U.S. jurisdictions without it. But by prioritizing the health and safety of the child over family reunification, Bill 299 creates a paradigm shift in our local child welfare system. While I believe family life should be nurtured and preserved, the right of a child to a safe, stable, and permanent home must always be the primary concern. This bill helps ensure that.
Speak out against abuse
Child abuse cases are not private tragedies, they’re a community problem. And it takes the community stepping in to protect our children and help them grow up feeling safe and loved.
Since the bill’s introduction in April, many in child welfare have reached out to me emphasizing the need for this reform. While a public hearing has not yet been scheduled by the Committee on Health, I encourage every foster parent, adoptive parent, guardian, or social worker to support this measure and share your story.
Bill 299 makes clear that we are not a culture tolerant of abuse. If we say we care about life, then let’s move this measure forward.
Otherwise, the scourge of child abuse across our homes will continue to repeat itself.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you suspect a child may be subjected to abuse, please contact Child Protective Services at 671-475-2653/2672.
Mary Camacho Torres is a four-term senator in the Guam Legislature. Her previous positions in public service include deputy general manager at the Guam Visitors Bureau, executive manager for the Guam International Airport Authority, and general manager at the Port Authority of Guam. Throughout her legislative career, Mary has worked to improve voter access, expand protections for victims of violence, and build up Guam’s health care providers and small business community.