More than 400 of some 4,800 Washington state foster parents have asked to change their licenses in the wake of a new rule that requires flu shots for caregivers of children younger than 2.

Share story

More than 400 Washington state foster parents say they’ll no longer care for babies and toddlers younger than 2 if they have to get flu shots to do it, newly released state figures show.

At least 389 foster parents have asked to change their licenses to accept only older children after a new rule was announced in January that requires annual influenza vaccinations for caregivers and families who take the youngest kids. Another 16 have suspended their licenses entirely, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

That amounts to more than 8 percent of the 4,800 certified foster parents in the state who care for 8,500 children — including about 1,000 under age 2.

DSHS officials said Thursday that many of the families amending their licenses didn’t accept the youngest children, anyway.

“We do not expect a significant effect on the number of foster homes available for children under 2,” the agency said in a statement.

Still, critics say it raises worries about a worsening shortage of providers.

“It’s a huge chunk,” said Beth Canfield, co-president of the Foster Parents Association of Washington (FPAWs). “They thought it was going to be a handful. Now we’re really concerned about being able to place these babies.”

The requests for license change include 136 foster families in DSHS Region 1, which includes Yakima and Spokane; 111 in Region 2, which includes Seattle and Everett; and 142 in Region 3, which includes Tacoma and Vancouver. DSHS provided the figures in response to a Seattle Times public-records request.

Agency officials indicated they won’t back off the flu-shot rule, which is aimed at protecting babies and children most at risk for severe complications from the flu.

Washington appears to be the only state to require flu shots for foster families, according to the National Foster Parent Association.

Some critics of the regulation said they object to the vaccine itself, which varies widely in effectiveness and, very rarely, can cause side effects. Others said they don’t like officials adding yet another obligation to foster parents caring for the state’s most vulnerable children.

“We have enough hoops to jump through, and it’s one that’s onerous,” said Ann Marie Henninger, 47, of Sequim, a nurse caring for three foster children younger than 5. “It’s the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone older than 6 months get flu shots. But flu shots can be fickle. This year’s shots turned out to be only 18 percent effective against the dominant virus circulating this season.

Megan Atkinson, 45, of Olympia, has an adopted child, 3, and a foster child, four months. She said she changed her license after the flu rule took effect, but only temporarily. Overall, she doesn’t appreciate how DSHS handled the issue.

“What was frustrating to me is that they’re being a little flippant,” she said. “I love being a foster parent, but it’s not a spigot they can just turn on and off.”

Losing foster parents willing to take babies and toddlers is having an immediate impact, said Canfield.

“Just last night, I was at a meeting and they were having problems placing a 2-day-old baby and a 1-year-old,” she said. “And they’re usually really easy to place.”

Henninger said DSHS officials placed two 13-month-old children with her a week after the rule took effect, despite her refusal to get flu shots. She said she believes the agency will have to bend the flu rule or face dire consequences.

“I think it’s pretty stunning that many foster families have made a decision in the way that we have,” she said. “Who ultimately is going to get hurt by this? It’s the kids who need care.”