Maya Gana, 13, was pleased to become vaccinated during a pop-up clinic at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services has stripped its references to the "critical importance" of the COVID vaccine from guidance given to foster parents and removed from its website complete data on the number of kids who have gotten sick.

The agency has also failed to respond to questions since last week about whether it is following the urging of federal child welfare officials to take immediate steps to ensure kids in state custody get vaccinated.

DCS serves as a guardian for the well-being of Tennessee children who have been removed from their homes due to allegations of neglect or abuse. As of last week, there were 8,965 kids in state custody — 3,762 are 12 or older, meeting the minimum age requirements for the vaccine.

It's not publicly known how many children in DCS care have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Asked how many of these children have been vaccinated, department spokesman Rob Johnson said, "we do not track how many children received a vaccine."

Like other child welfare programs across the country, kids in DCS custody are more likely to be Black or brown, a fact that prompted the federal Department of Health and Human Services to send a letter on June 7 to DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols and other child welfare leaders urging them to "assist in securing access to critical vaccines" for youth ages 12 and up.

The letter asks DCS to help foster parents by making vaccine appointments and providing transportation for kids to get the vaccine. The federal guidance also urges the department to immediately contact older kids in custody — those in college or who recently left DCS custody — to offer the same help. It urged DCS to partner with public health nurses to bring vaccines to group homes. The letter also asks department officials to reach out to foster parents with limited English to ensure they have the information and resources they need to get kids vaccinated.

DCS personnel did not respond to questions last week about whether they had followed the federal government's advice. Instead, the department appears to have backtracked on the guidance it gives foster parents, who — the agency says — are responsible for deciding whether kids in their care get vaccinated.

A previous version of the guidance, dated March 18, says: "vaccinations against this infection have been determined to be critically important in controlling the pandemic and getting 'back to normal.' Vaccines are deemed to be highly effective in prevention severe infections and death."

The updated guidance for foster parents eliminates nearly all information about the vaccine. Instead, the document, updated July 20, includes one sentence about the vaccine:

"Foster parents and other care providers are entrusted with the authority and responsibility for the daily upbringing and care of children in their care consistent with the child's individualized circumstances and in consultation with the child's medical provider, including routine authority for matters such as well-care treatment, vaccination, vision and hearing."

The change in the department's outreach language came eight days after departure of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state's former top vaccine official with the Department of Health. Fiscus has said publicly she was made a scapegoat by her bosses after some Republican lawmakers got angry over state efforts to provide vaccine information to teens.

In an interview with the Lookout last week, Fiscus noted that vaccines were especially critical in group homes and residential facilities. DCS has experienced several COVID-19 outbreaks among kids living in residential facilities.

"The kids who are in DCS custody who are in group living, we saw cases sweep through," Fiscus said. "Now we can prevent that from happening, and it's tragic that we're not providing ready access to the vaccine."

Thus far, at least 1,247 kids in DCS custody have contracted COVID-19, including 729 kids in group facilities that saw outbreaks, 443 living in foster homes and 75 boys living at Wilder Youth Development Center, a secure department lockup for kids who have gotten into trouble.

At least 51 other kids in DCS custody have contracted COVID in juvenile detention centers, a number that was last updated in March. The department has since stopped posting the data on COVID outbreaks in these county facilities.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said she was shocked the department could not say how many kids in state custody have been vaccinated. And she said she was troubled by the change in guidance to foster parents.

"This has nothing to do with marketing to kids," she said. "This is another step in the wrong direction, where we are once again standing at the edge of a cliff. These are our most vulnerable children in a worldwide pandemic and we are making them even more vulnerable. We need to be more transparent about what's happening to these children, not less. "

some text
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. Bruce Giffey, R-Paris, however, struck a note of caution, saying he still has no definitive answers on how to weigh the the risk of infection for kids versus the risk of adverse consequences from the vaccine.

"That information is critical for every parent or foster parent or provider," he said. "Someone responsible needs to be evaluating that information — what's the risk of the vaccine for kids? What's the risk of COVID? That's what we need to know first."