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How many Florida children in foster care are vaccinated? The state doesn’t know

The state has more than 6,000 children in foster care 12+
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Posted at 6:16 AM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-26 18:37:47-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — As the debate rages on over how to protect children from COVID-19 and the Delta variant, and whether parents are vaccinating their kids, ABC Action News wanted to know what’s happening in cases where the parent is the state?

The I-Team found, out of Florida’s more than 6,000 children in foster care ages 12 and older, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) does not know how many children have been vaccinated.

The state is not tracking that data.

FINDING HOMES FOR CHILDREN

A patchwork of plans and guidelines across the state’s 18 contracted child welfare agencies is leaving some foster parents pleading for help to get kids in their care vaccinated and protect people inside the same home.

The child welfare system, already strained and struggling for resources, has been pushed to the brink.

Foster parents, caseworkers and staff have not let up during the pandemic. They really don’t have a choice with thousands of kids in need of a home.

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Rebecca Kapusta is the new Chief of Community Base Care for Eckerd Connects, the lead agency contracted to handle foster care for the Tampa Bay area, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Hillsborough has more children in foster care than any other county in the state.

“The things that really we’re struggling with immensely is the health and safety of everyone in the system. Because it impacts like a domino effect. Everybody,” Kapusta said of the coronavirus and those who test positive. “I need a place to place that child. And so I need staff that are willing to say, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll work with that child.’ I need a home willing to say, ‘I’ll take that child’, even though they’re COVID positive.”

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The case numbers are likely higher, as these numbers are based solely on the information provided to Eckerd Connects.

The I-Team asked Kapusta about where vaccinations stand for the more than 1,000 children in Eckerd’s care who are 12 to 17 years old.

“I just don’t think that a lot of them are taking advantage of it, but I don’t have the data to be able to articulate how many are and how many are not,” Kapusta said.

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A DCF memo says caseworkers “shall provide documentation of the consent for the vaccine and shall document the consent and administration in FSFN.”

Florida Safe Families Network, “FSFN,” is DCF’s internal database.

In an email, a DCF spokesperson told the I-Team, “…regarding tracking - a note is put into FSFN, but DCF does not track it or collect data and would not be able to pull it out into a report.”

DCF said Eckerd may have that information. Eckerd is now working to implement its own system to track when a child has been vaccinated.

“It helps us keep them safe. It helps us keep our workers safe,” Kapusta said.

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Rebecca Kapusta, Chief of Community Based Care for Eckerd Connects

PUSH TO PRIORITIZE VACCINATIONS

Robin Rosenberg, Deputy Director of Florida’s Children First, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of kids served by state agencies, told the I-Team while obtaining data is important, it doesn’t hit on what she sees as the main problem.

“To me, that’s not as important as not making the effort to get everyone who’s eligible, vaccinated,” Rosenberg said. “We see with the healthcare situation for children in Florida. This needs to be a priority.”

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Robin Rosenberg, Deputy Director of Florida's Children First, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of kids served by state agencies

The latest memo DCF put out is from the beginning of April. The bottom line is, it says a child must meet the FDA’s age requirement and request or consent to a vaccine.

“We do not have the ability to make a child or force a child to be vaccinated,” Kapusta said. "We’re still going to meet with the kids, we’re still going to meet with the families, we’re still going to encourage them to take advantage of the vaccinations that are available, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be their choice whether or not they want to take advantage of that vaccine.”

If a child is committed to the state, it is the agency that essentially provides that parental consent. But if a parent is “unavailable, cannot be located or refuses to consent to treatment” DCF says the agency can seek a court order.

It’s unclear how often Eckerd Connects is taking this step.

“That is another data question that I just don’t have the data to be able to tell me whether or not — or how many court orders we’ve had to obtain in order to get a vaccination for a child in our system,” Kapusta said.

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In June, two months after the DCF memo, a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families went out to child welfare leaders across the country, saying in part:

As a disproportionate percentage of children and youth in foster care are children of color from underserved communities with longstanding barriers to equitable health care, digital technology, and other crucial supports, it is especially important to be proactive and take all measures possible to prioritize access to vaccinations for youth ages 12 and older in foster care, young adults, their families, and other important adults in their lives.”

DCF contracts with more than a dozen partner agencies across the state, like Eckerd Connects, to carry out foster care. Because of that, those measures taken to prioritize access to vaccines look different in different communities.

“When I hear there’s a community that’s relying on kids to come forward and say, ‘By the way, I would like a vaccine’ — if nobody is telling them that they have the right to ask for the vaccine, then that’s meaningless,” Rosenberg said.

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Rosenberg said the patchwork of policies and approaches puts the health and well-being of Florida’s foster care children at risk.

“It jeopardizes children and I think it jeopardizes the adults who live with those children,” Rosenberg said.

"WE'RE PUTTING OUR LIVES AT RISK"

The I-Team spoke with a foster parent who asked that we not show her face or use her name for her safety and fear of retaliation, and to protect the kids in her care. Several of the children have parents whose rights remain intact.

She asked to be referred to as “Ann.” She’s been a foster parent for about 30 years and has raised around 200 boys with her husband.

“We’re all putting our lives at risk, just like the frontline workers,” Ann said, of being a foster parent during the pandemic, describing the last year and a half as “overwhelming.”

Several other foster parents the I-Team communicated with did not want to go on the record about the struggles of getting kids vaccinated, also fearing retaliation.

“Foster care is a very hard job. It’s overwhelming, we’re up morning to night with the children, from behavioral problems to education problems, now pandemic problems, so we’re working the best that we can to raise other people’s children,” Ann said. “But it is affecting our personal lives, where we could actually die because the child goes to school without the shot, bring it back to us, or affect other children in the house.”

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Foster parent who asked that we not show her face or use her name for her safety and fear of retaliation, and to protect the kids in her care

This is why Ann and her family made the difficult decision to do Pinellas Virtual School, a choice she said has been all-consuming working to help the kids get through their classwork.

“Foster children are usually behind in school, and so this is kind of overwhelming and above their levels, but we have no choice but to continue,” she said. “They’re working from like 7 in the morning to 9 at night, trying to keep up and do the best that they can do.”

Ann and her husband have health concerns and are fully vaccinated. But some of the children in their home aren’t old enough yet to get the shot. For other children, the parent(s) will not give consent.

One child, Ann told the I-Team, said all he wants for his birthday is the vaccine.

“He wants a COVID shot and he will be denied. We brought it to court, it’s — even the court can’t change that. There’s a law that says, even though the parent was abusive, didn’t make good choices for themselves or the child, that they still have the right to make that decision,” Ann said of parents whose rights have not been terminated.

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One of Ann's foster children said he wants the COVID-19 vaccine for his birthday

“A lot of the kids will say, ‘I don’t understand, my mom is a drug addict, and she puts all the bad drugs in her, so why would she deny me a COVID vaccination that could save my life or save somebody else’s life?’” Ann said. “It’s sad.”

WHO HAS THE POWER TO DECIDE?

Most states require parental consent for vaccinations, but not all.

For example, in Alabama, a child has to be at least 14 years old. In Rhode Island and South Carolina, that age limit for consent is at least 16 years old, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Map showing parental consent requirements for COVID-19 vaccines

Then at least two cities so far, San Francisco and Philadelphia are now allowing minors 12 and older to self-consent for the COVID vaccination.

“Hopefully somebody steps in and lets these kids get the COVID shot if they’re really begging for it. And that’s what they’re doing. They’re begging for it,” Ann said.

The FDA’s approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine on August 23 for people 16 and older is expected to lower some of the barriers to getting teens in child welfare vaccinated.

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The I-Team has requested an interview with DCF multiple times to talk about what the state is doing to protect kids in its care through the vaccine and any preparation for what the age limit drops to include children under 12 years old. We’re still waiting.

This story started with a tip. If you have something you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email Kylie at kylie.mcgivern@wfts.com.