Bill to eliminate vax requirements for Tennessee foster care

Published 7:18 pm Thursday, February 22, 2024

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By Anita Wadhwani

Tennessee Lookout

A bill that would eliminate flu and whooping cough vaccine requirements for adoptive families and foster families caring for infants and medically fragile kids is advancing in the Tennessee legislature.

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The bill, by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Ron Gant, R-Piperton, would end current vaccine rules for families fostering or adopting babies under 18 months old and kids with significant medical needs, based on the families’ moral or religious objections.

Watson said the bill was intended to remove discriminatory requirements and expand Tennessee’s pool of foster and adoptive families.

“Under the current law, it disqualifies families from fostering and/or adopting a child in state care based on their immunization status, which I find to be discriminatory and unfair” Watson said during Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“Why would we in any way hinder good families, safe families, who desire to foster and/or adopt these babies,” he said.

The measure has raised concerns within the Department of Children’s Services, whose deputy general counsel warned lawmakers about “health repercussions for that vulnerable population” should the measure become law.

“We’re not only talking about (children) under-18 months,” said Sammi Mayfair, DCS’ attorney. “This would also apply to children with special medical needs — so immunocompromised children, children who are vulnerable anyway — so being exposed to those diseases could be severely detrimental to that population particularly,” she said.

DCS currently has no shortage in families who wish to adopt or foster infants and are willing to comply with current vaccine requirements, Jim Layman, executive director of legislation and policy for DCS, told lawmakers.

Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis, noted she had received a whooping cough vaccine and flu shot while pregnant to protect her son.

“Is there any accountability put in place if the child is severely sick or dies from either the flu or whooping cough that they contracted from a family who didn’t get vaccinated?” she asked.

Watson responded that the scenario would be the same as if a child is physically abused in foster care. “I think the same kind of standards exist there that would exist under these statutes,” he said.

The bill has potential to jeopardize federal funding. This Department of Children’s Services receives $252.5 million in federal foster care funding. As condition of receiving federal dollars is for the state to submit a foster care and adoption plan for approval by the U.S. Health and Human Services department. Those plans must meet guidelines by the Administration for Children and Families that say all caregivers must be up-to-date on whooping cough and annual influenza vaccines. States that wish to veer from those guidelines must get federal permission.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a vaccine-preventable respiratory illness caused by bacteria and is extremely contagious, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. About a third of infants under a year old who get whooping cough will be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While deaths are rare, they are most likely to occur in infants under 3 months old.

Flu, likewise, poses higher risks for infants and immunocompromised children. Children younger than 6 months old have the highest risk for being hospitalized from flu, according to the CDC.

Watson, the bill’s sponsor, noted that while foster and adoptive families may be available for healthy infants, there are challenges in finding families willing to take on babies exposed to drugs in utero or kids with disabilities.

Potential foster and adoptive parents opposed to vaccines are often well-suited to provide good homes to kids, according to Watson.

“The demographic of this group of individuals that tend to, perhaps, view the world a little bit differently than the rest of us…they are highly educated and they are affluent. They have the resources to help care for these children and they are very well educated,” Watson said.

The bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Lamar the only “no” vote. It will move onto a calendar committee before heading to a full vote on the Senate floor.