Foster care mandate limits organization’s efforts

A mandate requiring foster parents and agencies who work with foster children under the age of 2 to get the flu shot has one Seattle-area organization scrambling to comply or turn away kids, despite the fact that the flu season is over.

The flu shot mandate means that if foster parents and those who live in the foster home do not get the flu shot vaccination, they will lose their foster license for children under 2. The loss of a license means that no children under the age of 2 will be placed in their home. It goes beyond affecting foster homes and impacts the organizations that work with foster children.

Safe Place is located in Everett, and is an after-hours care facility operated by Executive director Todd McNeal has been a foster parent for 17 years and found that there was a need for a place for children who were removed from homes after drug raids, DUIs and domestic violence. Often the children would sit in a social worker’s car or office while the social worker was on the phone looking for a home McNeal said.

“We decided that there was a better way,” McNeal said. “So we wanted to develop a process, a place for the kids to come to get services, to de-escalate and to just feel safe.”

With that goal in mind, Safe Place was developed, but as a result of this mandate, the organization has been forced to turn away babies under 2 and will most likely have to hire new staff to replace some of the organization’s “key staff” that cannot get the flu shot for medical reasons. The children they turn away are denied access to the services that Safe Place provides and remain in the system of staying in an office or a car until a home can be found McNeal said.

“We essentially, just in the last week, have turned away 8 children that were under 2,” McNeal said.

The rollout of the mandate is what McNeal is frustrated with. Social Service Specialist Michael Rose with the Department of Children and Family Services in Spokane, Wash. discussed the roll out process from the perspective of someone in the department.

“We got an email Friday that told us that it took effect Monday,” Rose said.

Rose, like McNeal, was frustrated with the implementation process which Rose described as a “disaster rollout” affecting hundreds of homes for foster children, who already have limited options.

The flu has been particularly virulent this year, but there has been little evidence that the flu shot helped combat this strain this year.

The vaccine effectiveness for the 2014-2015 influenza season is 19 percent, down 32 percent from 2013-2014’s 51 percent, according to a Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report on Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness.

Rose was not required to get the flu shot, but he got it anyway. He described getting sick with the flu multiple times this year.

Katie Lohr is a foster parent and also volunteers at Safe Place to care for children entering the foster care system. Lohr expressed her own frustration with the process, even though both her and her husband Brian got the flu shot this year.

“The problem we’re having right now is that my husband Brian got his shot at work,” Lohr said. “He doesn’t really have any paperwork for it because you just go down to the lobby of your building and they give you the shot and then they send you back up.”

McNeal described that being an issue for a number of Safe Place volunteers, coupled with a lack of medical exemptions meant that within the first week period of the mandate rolling out, less than 25 percent of the organization’s volunteers were able to produce their records. McNeal, Lohr and Rose all agree that having a flu shot mandate is not a bad thing. The idea is to protect the kids, however all three also all agree that implementation process was flawed.

“Our issue is that the mandate was instantaneous and should have had a phase-in,” McNeal said. “It came at the end of the flu season when the shot was less than 18 percent effective. The flu shot is barely available already, right now it’s very difficult to find.”

Lohr noted that although her biggest frustration was the lack of time and the timing of the mandate, she was also frustrated with the fact that no one else who has contact with the children besides the people in the home is required to get the flu shot.

“No one else who has contact with the kids has to get it,” Lohr said. “None of the visitation supervisors, social workers, daycare providers—everybody else who has just as much interaction with our kids as we do—doesn’t have to get it.”

This mandate will impact Safe Place long after flu season. Once the flu shot runs out, Safe Place will be forced to stop processing any new volunteers for the organization and the state will not be able to license any more foster homes until the shot is available again in October, which is particularly problematic because of the huge home shortage that is already in place, McNeal said.

Rose echoed that thought, noting that Homefinders, the unit of social workers in Spokane tasked with initial placements for children that enter the foster care system, has a limited list of people that are vaccinated with whom they are allowed to place children.

“It’s frustrating because we already have a shortage [of homes] and we have a huge need,” Rose said. “We have empty homes that we can’t place with.”

Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington introduced a bill to repeal the mandate in February after the mandate came out in the previous month. Hargrove had previously been in discussions to lift the rule with officials from the Department of Social Health Services, but was unable to come to an agreement, according to a press release from the Washington House Republicans.

“It simply doesn’t make sense for the state to impose this new mandate at a time when we’re facing a growing shortage of foster parents,” Hargrove said in the press release. “I’m wondering if the state truly believes that enforcing this mandate is worth the cost of seeing foster parents leave the system.”

The bill states that “The department may not deny a license to serve foster children under this chapter for lacking proof of influenza immunizations for individuals living in the foster home.” The bill has been referred to the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

For foster parents such as Lohr, the mandate is simply a compliance issue that challenges their efforts to care for defenseless foster children.

“In principle, it shouldn’t affect our license,” Lohr said of their personal foster license, because both her and her husband received the flu shot. “But in reality it is.”

For the efforts of Safe Place and McNeal, this bill might help in the future by allowing them to continue to process volunteers and accept children to care for, but their hands are tied for the time being.

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