Saying a loving home trumps the chance of disease, state lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to allowing foster children to be placed in homes where other youngsters are not immunized.
The 33-24 vote came despite impassioned pleas, largely by Democratic lawmakers, that the legislation would put these youngsters at risk of contracting any of a whole host of childhood diseases. Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, who is a physician, specifically mentioned the nearly 990 cases of whooping cough in Arizona last year.
But proponents of SB 1108, which now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer, said it makes no sense to make certain homes off limits to foster children when there are so many other opportunities for exposure.
``We walk everywhere today, we are on the bus, we're on the train, we're on airplanes,'' said Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City. ``And we're constantly being exposed to all kinds of things.''
And Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, told colleagues that they are focused on the wrong issue.
``If you're more concerned with a child that may get sick, I can tell you that child is probably, probably, much more concerned with wanting somebody to love them,'' he said.
There are more than 14,000 youngsters in foster care.
According to the Department of Economic Security, about a third of them are placed with relatives. And another nearly 6,000 already are in foster homes.
But DES estimates that about 1,350 children -- about 9.5 percent of the total -- are in group homes awaiting placement with a family. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, said there are families out there whose only disqualification is the refusal to vaccinate their own children.
``There are parents out there right now, waiting, waiting for this bill to pass so they can be licensed to bring in foster children,'' she said.
Lesko said nothing in the legislation forces DES to make a specific placement. Nor does it affect requirements for the agency to search health records and, when necessary, vaccinate the foster children themselves.
She said DES can still try to match up foster children with the best situations for them, immunizations included. Ultimately, Lesko said, DES can decide whether it makes more sense to put a child into a home with unvaccinated children versus a group home.
The debate, however, quickly spun off into related areas, including the highly volatile issue of the merits versus the risks of vaccinations.
Meyer cited a study by the Institute of Medicine which said states that make it easy for parents to exempt children from being immunized had a 90 percent higher rate of whooping cough in 2011. He said household members were responsible for infecting infants with the disease in 80 percent of those cases.
He also said multiple studies have shown no link between vaccinations and autism despite claims by some that the shots -- or perhaps preservatives in them -- have resulted in mental or emotional problems for the their children.
And Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said the legislation is opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
``This bill is not a debate over whether children should be immunized or not,'' Lesko responded, saying that legislators should stay focused on the issue of what is best for the children waiting home placement.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said that is his focus. He pointed out that when a child is placed in foster care, he or she becomes the responsibility of the state.
``I feel as a state representative I'm responsible for them,'' Gallego said. ``And before I place them in a home, a loving home, I want to make sure that home is going to be a healthy environment for them.''