PHOENIX - State lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to allowing foster children to be placed in homes where other youngsters are not immunized, saying a loving home outweighs the health concerns.
The 33-24 vote came despite impassioned pleas, largely by Democratic lawmakers, the legislation would put kids at risk of contracting any of a host of childhood diseases. Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, a physician, cited 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."
Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said opponents 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 children in foster care.
The Department of Economic Security says about a third of them are placed with relatives. And another nearly 6,000 already are in foster homes.
But DES estimates 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 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, 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 something in the shots has resulted in mental or emotional problems for children.
And Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said the legislation is opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.