A new Washington law is forcing foster care providers to make a choice: get a flu shot or stop caring for children younger than 2 years old.
At least 50 foster parents in Eastern Washington already have told the state Department of Social and Health Services they would rather relinquish their licenses to care for infants and toddlers than be vaccinated for flu.
“I will have to close my license, unfortunately,” said Candice Achenbach, of Spokane, who has been fostering medically fragile newborns for five years. “My daughter has a medical condition that doesn’t allow her to receive a flu shot, and the state has told us there are no exceptions.”
Everyone else in the home has received all of the other vaccinations, she said.
The Washington Administrative Code that took effect last month applies to all people living in a foster home or who work in foster care group homes where there are children 2 or younger. There are no exceptions to the rule.
The deadline to be vaccinated is Feb. 27.
A statement from the Department of Social and Health Services Children’s Administration defends the immunization rules. The goal is to protect children “in our care and custody, which is the paramount focus,” said spokeswoman Mindy Chambers. “We selected this age group because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health have indicated these are the children who are most vulnerable to illness.”
The mandate comes during a flu season that is worse than it has been in several years, health authorities report. The flu has put 298 people into Spokane hospitals and is blamed for 11 deaths this season; 92 people have died statewide.
Veteran foster mom Becky Keifer said she’s “struggling to know what to do, as I know many people are, so I haven’t decided. We have a right not to be told what vaccination to get.”
Spokane County has about 500 foster homes and close to 1,000 foster children; about 30 percent of them are under 5 years old.
Keifer is licensed for three foster children up to 6 years old. She said the state frequently calls asking her to care for children under 2.
Based on responses to a survey she posted on multiple foster-parent forums, the 34-year-old is worried about a shortage of foster-care openings after the deadline passes. Almost half of the 260 respondents planned to change or cancel their licenses.
“It’s not about being anti-vaccine. It’s strictly about the flu vaccine and being made to go get it,” Keifer said. “The kids will be in crisis. It will be catastrophic, if you ask me.”
The Children’s Administration is polling foster families through the end of the month. The agency would not provide any preliminary numbers regarding providers’ decisions thus far.
“The department is concerned about the loss of any homes, but we have to make tough decisions to safeguard the health and well-being of children entrusted in our care,” Chambers said. “If we find we are losing resources to meet the needs of children under 2, we will emphasize that need in our recruitment efforts.”
The state is barely finding enough placements under current circumstances.
The new law caught the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery off guard, said Amy Knapton, executive director. The nursery provides emergency care and shelter for children under 7 who are removed from harmful situations.
“Every time there’s a mandate like this it brings up more questions than answers,” she said. The crisis nursery has three pregnant volunteers whose doctors are telling them not to be vaccinated, and “we’ve heard the opposite. So, right now we are telling everyone else to go get their shot and we’re checking with the state.”
State officials insist that flu vaccinations are safe for pregnant women.
Flu is not the only vaccination foster care providers are required to receive. Starting in 2012, a pertussis vaccination to guard against whooping cough became a requirement. That went through without much fuss.
Keifer and Achenbach said they believe the state tried to hide the new rule from foster parents. The women say they weren’t informed about a public hearing on the matter held in October.
“I’m a very active foster parent,” Achenbach said. “I go to all the meetings. I’m in the (Children’s Administration) office all the time, and I had no clue there was a public meeting on this.”
A group of foster parents met with Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, and Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, about changing the wording in the law, but the representatives have not filed a bill.
“There are no caveats, and that’s our problem with this,” Keifer said. “To eliminate this many beds if you’re allergic to the flu vaccine is not right.”
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