DPHSS: Budget shorted foster family stipends by $4.1M

DONATIONS: Staff members from the Department of Public Health and Social Services organize shoes to distribute to foster children during a donation drive on Aug. 11, 2019, in Hagåtña. DPHSS said at a legislative hearing Friday it needs $5.2 million more this year to fully fund stipends and health insurance for the island's foster children. Haruo Simion/The Guam Daily Post

“I’m still here with children,” Rufina Tainatongo, a foster parent for nearly four decades, told lawmakers.

She offered testimony at a legislative hearing Friday, encouraging others to open their homes to children who fall victim to neglect and abuse.

Speaker Therese Terlaje convened the virtual hearing to share the benefits and assistance available to licensed foster parents such as Tainatongo, in the midst of recent spikes in the number of cases handled by Child Protective Services. Legislation introduced this term found the number of children referred to CPS nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021.

According to the Department of Public Health and Social Services, 474 children were in the foster care system on Oct. 5. Of this group:

• 70 were in licensed foster homes;

• 242 were placed with relatives, such as grandparents;

• 49 were with parents under supervisory conditions;

• 77 were in group homes approved by CPS.

Department officials did not disclose the custody status of the remaining 36 children during the hearing.

“Guamanian people, … young adults that are married and don’t have children: Open your heart. That might bring you your own child if you take (in) one. All they’re asking is one,” Tainatongo said.

Including the three siblings she currently is caring for, the seasoned foster mom, affectionately known as “Mrs. T.” has taken in 91 foster children over the years.

But critical financial assistance Tainatongo and other foster parents rely upon is underfunded this year.

Only $374,115 has been allocated for monthly stipends and other contractual expenses, according to information presented by DPHSS. The amount can cover financial needs for only one month.

To help defray the cost of food, clothing and other supplies for foster children, foster parents are given a regular payment of $576.73 for children 11 and younger, and $779.43 for kids 12 to 17.

“We know that cost can vary greatly from child to child, but, … this money is there to help the foster parent having room for the child, making sure the family is in a good place to provide for the child without taking away from … their own children is, of course, always very important,” Terry Aguon, deputy director of DPHSS, said in his testimony.

An additional $4.1 million is needed to fund these stipends fully for the rest of the fiscal year. The budget for health insurance for Guam’s foster children is also short by $1.1 million, according to the department.

Sen. Telo Taitague expressed concerns about the reported budgetary shortfalls, given the Legislature appropriated amounts requested by DPHSS itself.

“I think there was some anticipation of using (American Rescue Plan) funding as your way to counteract what you didn’t get in this budget. So that was the understanding,” she said.

Taitague wanted more information on how the financial gap will be addressed.

“If I may, I don’t think we have time this morning for a budget hearing,” Speaker Terlaje said in response. “We were assured by (DPHSS officials) that they knew, they acknowledged that they were short in certain areas of the department’s funding, and that they were going to be covered in any shortfalls that they had by the governor. That was their representation at the budget hearing.”

Melanie Brennan, director of the Department of Youth Affairs, which helps manage CPS through a recent executive order, confirmed to The Guam Daily Post that while a specific funding source has not been identified, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero remains committed to providing needed financial support to the island’s foster children, including for stipends and insurance costs.

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