Second rule-making bill for adoption agencies receives support

Screen shot from Guam Legislature live stream of virtual public hearing of Bill 206-36 held Monday. 

In contrast to testimony on a similar measure heard last week, Terry Aguon, deputy director at the Department of Public Health and Social Services, stated Monday that his agency supported Bill 206-36, a measure that requires adoption agencies to be licensed by Public Health. Others who testified supported the measure as well.

Aguon had also attended the hearing on Bill 179-36 last week, where he stated that Public Health opposed the bill because the department wanted to work with federal partners on rules and regulations related to establishing adoption agencies on Guam, and didn't want to lock itself into the bill's provisions as it continued that process.

Sen. Telo Taitague has voiced concerns with Aguon’s apparent change of heart in terms of issues with Bill 179 between their discussions and last week’s public hearing of the bill. 

Taitague, together with Sens. Sabina Perez and Joanne Brown and Speaker Therese Terlaje, sponsor Bill 179. 

Bill 206 was introduced by Sen. Mary Torres and has nine other senators sponsoring the proposed legislation. 

Competing bills 

Bills 179 and 206 both mandate interim rules for licensing adoption agencies and exempt these rules from the Administrative Adjudication Act, allowing them to remain in effect for a period of time or until the rules are finalized. However, the latter requires at least one public hearing for the AAA exemption and states that no rule is effective until passed by the Legislature.

Bill 206 also sets up a buffer period, granting Public Health up to 180 days to promulgate and publish the interim rules. Bill 179 simply states that Public Health must adopt interim rules and licensure requirements, with the bill being effective upon enactment. 

Lastly, Bill 206 also appropriates $1,000 from the unexpended funds of the office of Sen. Mary Torres, the main sponsor to the bill, to aid in preparing, promulgating and publishing the interim rules. 

On Monday, Aguon stated Bill 206's promulgation and publication provision is in line with the Open Government Law, and highlighted this as he went over reasons for supporting the bill.

Last week, as he discussed Bill 179 with lawmakers, Aguon stated that he wanted to ensure the community is woven into the rule-making process. 

Taitague said Monday that it was "unfortunate" that there are two bills for consideration but one was considered transparent and the other not.

"I think both bills have transparency," Taitague said, before asking Augon and Department of Youth Affairs Director Melanie Brennan - also at Monday's hearing - whether their agency's had the authority to require public hearings when creating rules and regulations. Both said that was true.

"OK. So, that's not an issue. I think transparency is first and foremost especially when dealing with the most vulnerable," Taitague said.

Brennan would later say that part of her concern with Bill 179 is that the language implied automatic licensure of each adoption agency, and she didn't see the same concern with the language in Bill 206. Aguon would also add that he shared Brennan's concern with Bill 179 and similarly saw that Bill 206 did not have the same issue. 

Change of heart 

After the public hearing on Bill 179 last week, Taitague released a statement questioning whether Public Health was politicizing the issue of licensing adoption agencies.

According to the release, Taitague and Sens. Sabina Perez and Joann Brown, other co-sponsors to Bill 179, met with with Aguon, a staff member of Child Protective Services and the governor's policy director several weeks ago regarding Bill 179. There were no objections at that time, except a request to revise the legislative findings in the bill, and information regarding ongoing coordination between Public Health and federal partners was withheld until the public hearing on Bill 179, the release added.

"Mr. Aguon’s change of heart on the urgency of developing rules and regulations compels Senator Taitague and cosponsors of Bill 179-36 to question whether DPHSS leadership has chosen to politicize the safety of our most vulnerable citizens," the release stated, referring to Public Health's opposition to Bill 179.

Clarifying existing law 

The impetus for these bills was the passage of two other bills from Torres, which were intended to streamline the adoption process and expand the Newborn Infant Safe Haven Act, but also inserts adoption agencies into these matters. A major concern for some senators during debate on those measures was the regulation of adoption agencies. The bills were enacted in July. 

Speaker Terlaje made note of these laws and questioned the transparency of these existing processes without licensing rules for adoption agencies. She added it was unfortunate Public Health appeared to be willing to wait 180 days for interim rules, as allowed by Bill 206, while these processes continued to move.

"That's where I'm questioning where the transparency is at that time," the speaker said. "I'm not objecting to (having) as much time as you want for your permanent rules or your long term rules, but it's this interim period that everyone's concerned about." 

Terlaje was also concerned with Legislative approval requirement for interim rules under Bill 206, as that would mean lawmakers, and not Public Health, would determine interim rules in the end.

"Not the experts in the field," she said.

Torres stated in a release after Monday's hearing that Guam law already has clear policies and procedures for conducting adoptions or becoming a foster parent - including an extensive screening process, a home evaluation, and Public Health’s approval. However, Bill 206 would require clearer regulations for the agencies that assist with adoption or foster care.

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