TN Senate OKs bill removing vaccine requirements for foster families

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — One Tennessee lawmaker wants to remove what he calls another barrier for potential foster families in Tennessee.

State Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson) got the final stamp of approval from the Tennessee Senate Thursday, Feb. 29, when the chamber approved SB 2359.

The bill would prohibit the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) from requiring a flu or pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine for individuals before they foster a child under the age of 18 months if such vaccines object under “religious or moral convictions.”

Watson told local NewsNation affiliate WKRN the measure is just continuing to eliminate “unnecessary barriers” between potential foster families and children who desperately need them.

“There are a lot of really good, loving, caring families that are vaccine concerned families that choose not to immunize their children, but they’d make really good foster parents,” he said. “I thought that the 18 months was an unnecessary barrier to some of these families participating in the program.”

According to Watson, there are at least several families in his district that were excluded from the fostering process “due to being vaccine concerned,” but he theorized there would be many more families across Tennessee who felt the same way and would make for great foster parents.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Watson called the current prohibition on unvaccinated families’ fostering or adoption “discriminatory,” saying the bill would expand the eligible pool of families for foster care and adoption.

“The state could benefit,” he said Wednesday, Feb. 20, “from more good, caring, loving homes available for placement.”

Further, he asked during the meeting why would the state “hinder good families, safe families, who desire to foster and/or adopt these babies?”

Jim Layman with DCS said the department worked with Watson on the bill to address any potential funding concerns, which were alleviated, but he also said the department’s stance on the bill was that vaccines protect children in DCS care.

Additionally, Layman said the department has an “adequate supply of foster homes, especially for infants,” including those who are willing to get their flu and pertussis vaccines. Where the department lacks an adequate supply is for foster homes for older children, sibling groups, and “harder to place” children.

“We need all the great foster families that we can get. We need those for any age, but since we do have a good supply for the infant children, we’re fortunate that even with these vaccine requirements in place, we can still find good homes for them and that they’re safe,” Layman said in committee.

According to DCS Communications Director Ashley Zarach, no families are turned away from the foster or adoption process due to immunization status. Rather, current rules place limits on which children can be placed with parents who do not receive a flu or pertussis vaccine.

“Under current rules, foster parents who choose not to comply with vaccine requirements are limited from being able to take in children under 18 months old and children who have significant medical needs,” she told News 2 via email.

During the committee meeting, Watson pushed back on Layman’s claims that DCS had enough foster families.

“I disagree with the argument that we have enough families,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of people that are willing to foster an NAS baby—a meth-addicted baby. Those are very challenging fostering infants. Everybody wants to foster the healthy child. There are plenty of folks to do that, but what about the family that’s willing to foster the NAS baby, which we all know, if you sit on health, there are a lot of kids like that.”

Watson told WKRN he felt health-related concerns of potentially unvaccinated families fostering babies until 18 months old were exaggerated.

“I think they’re overstated,” Watson said. “Some of these families, if not most of these families, are loving, caring environments, and a lot of these infants need those loving, caring environments.”

Further, Watson said the families who would be helped by his bill would create an environment for foster babies that would outweigh any potential health concerns.

“People who tend to be vaccine concerned also tend to be a little more affluent and tend to be a little more educated, and I just think the environment that’s created for some of these children would be worth any of this risk,” he told News 2. “I don’t think we should be creating barriers to participating in our foster care program. If we have good families that can provide good environments for infants and children to grow and develop in, we should be encouraging those families to participate, not creating barriers for participation.”

According to data from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), there have been five pediatric flu deaths so far this flu season. The health department recommends everyone 6 months of age and older receive their flu vaccine annually in order to slow the spread of flu and reduce severity in flu illnesses.

The TDH says whooping cough is most likely to cause serious illness or even hospitalization in infants under the age of 3 months.

If passed by the House, the bill would take effect in Tennessee upon receiving Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.


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