The focus of Wednesday’s legislative session was on the need to expand the capacity of Guam's group shelters and foster care homes, which would allow them to take in more homeless and abused children.
Senators spent the afternoon in discussion over two bills. Bill 159-35 was introduced by Sen. Therese Terlaje and would allow group child care homes to accept more than the current limit of 12 children. Sen. Mary Torres introduced Bill 135-35, which would allow more than six children in a foster care home.
Terlaje explained that Bill 159 would grant the director of the Department of Public Health and Social Services “the discretion” to waive the current restrictions on the maximum capacity for group child care homes.
Bill 159 would increase emergency shelter capacity so that Child Protective Services “can get children at risk out of harms way and off the streets and into a home where they can sleep without fear of being sexually or physically assaulted,” she said.
Allowing for the cap to be lifted is necessary because there are an estimated 294 homeless children on Guam and 35 are on the foster care home waiting list. Public Health “has run out of homes to put (children) in,” Terlaje said.
The senator said passage of the measure is “urgent now” because it will allow the new 7,000-square-foot group shelter, expected to open in October, to be put to full use.
The new group home is being built with funds secured by former first lady Christine Calvo’s Rigalu Foundation. It will be named after Sister Mary Bridget, who managed shelters on island before her recent retirement.
Sen. Regine Biscoe Lee asked whether a new limit should be established to cap the number of children allowed in a group home. But Terlaje said it would be better to give Public Health the “discretion” to set the limit.
Terlaje emphasized that the measure would apply only to group homes, not foster homes.
“We’re not trying to create an orphanage,” Terlaje said. The intent is to allow for “the emergency placement of children in protective custody,” pending a more permanent solution.
Sen. Telo Taitague rose in support, but reminded her colleagues that if they support lifting the cap, they are committing to paying for it.
"By voting for this bill, you have to support the funding needed," Taitague said. "The only way to put out a (request for proposal) is to make sure we have the funding to do so."
Bill 159 was moved to the voting file without objection.
Foster Home limit
Sen. Mary Torres introduce a companion measure for Bill 159 that would raise the limit on the number of children allowed in a foster home. That limit is currently six children.
“The crisis that we’re dealing with right now is the unacceptable number of children that are without permanent homes on Guam,” Torres said.
Bill 135-35 will help remedy the crisis by allowing a licensed foster family to take in more children than currently allowed, Torres said. She adding: “so long as it is approved by the Bureau of Social Services Administration.”
Like Terlaje’s proposal, Torres’ bill would not set a limit on the number allowed in a foster home, leaving it up to Public Health to decide.
Taitague proposed an amendment to raise the current age limit for becoming a foster parent from 18 to 21.
Torres objected and said “It’s going beyond the intent of the bill (and is) specific to amending the standards for foster homes.” Torres suggested that the regulations governing foster homes might be changed at a later time, and there is “no harm keeping (the age limit) as it is because it gives more discretion and options for Bureau of Social Services.”
Taitague revised her amendment to allow a single person who is 21 or older to apply to become a foster parent “unless provided as a special case by the bureau,” thus allowing social services to determine eligibility for those under 21.
However, before the vote was called on that amendment, Vice Speaker Telena Nelson called for a recess.
Session is scheduled to resume at 10:30 a.m. today.