Tester sponsors family grief bill to give parents more leave after death of a child

Great Falls Tribune

by Erin Kelly

WASHINGTON — When Heather Van Ostrand's baby boy died of sudden infant death syndrome, the young mother could barely get out of bed.

"I was just a hermit, I didn't want to leave the house for weeks," said the 25-year-old Florence woman, who lost her son, Rylan, three years ago. "It was hard for me to even get up and take a shower. I thought about how I would never get to see Rylan grow up or fall in love. He never got a full life — just knowing all the things that he missed broke my heart."

Van Ostrand said her employer at the time, a health insurance company, was generous and told her to take as much time off as she needed. She took about a month off before returning to work.

"I really, really needed to grieve, and I am so thankful for the time off I got to do that," she said. "I've spoken to other parents who had to go back to work after a day or two. I would have lost my job, there's no way I could have gone back that quickly."

Van Ostrand's experience spurred her to write her first-ever letter to a member of Congress.

She wrote Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asking him to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to allow grieving parents of children ages 18 and younger to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks without having to worry about losing their jobs.

Her letter, along with a nationwide petition drive started by Barry Kluger, an Arizona man who lost his daughter, convinced Tester to do just that. The senator has introduced the Parental Bereavement Act of 2011, and is gathering co-sponsors for the bill.
Nearly 17,000 people have signed Kluger's petition, many of them sharing their own stories about having to return to work within days after their children were murdered, committed suicide or died from accidents or disease. The standard bereavement leave for many U.S. companies is three days.

Kluger, whose 18-year-old daughter, Erica, died in a car crash 10 years ago, recently flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress to support Tester's bill.

Although Kluger is self-employed and did not have to worry about losing his job while he mourned, he has taken on the cause on behalf of other parents. After Erica died, Kluger wrote extensively about his grieving process, and people reached out to him as they dealt with the loss of their own children.

"I want to give a voice to these parents and try to get someone in Washington to listen," Kluger said.

The original Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993 during the Clinton administration, gives people up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or a sick parent, child or spouse. It also gives workers the right to take unpaid leave when they are seriously ill. It does not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

"People are surprised when we tell them that it doesn't cover the death of a child," Tester said. "Anytime a parent has to bury a child is, in my opinion, the most stressful and excruciating experience a family can go through. People need time to grieve and sort out what has happened without having to worry about losing their jobs."

Tester said he hasn't heard any opposition to his bill so far.

A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the original Family and Medical Leave Act as a burden on business, said the organization has not taken a stand on Tester's legislation.

"We're reviewing the legislation, and we haven't taken a position yet," said Marc Freedman, the chamber's director of labor law policy.

Expanding the law to cover grieving parents would affect a relatively small group of people, Tester said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2 percent of annual U.S. deaths involve babies, children and teens through age 19. In 2007, about 53,000 of the more than 2.4 million Americans who died were in that age group.

Although the current Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to take time off for mental health problems, grieving parents are reluctant to use that provision because they don't want the stigma of saying they have a mental illness such as depression, according to doctors. Parents also worry that using the mental health provision could lead future employers or insurance companies to discriminate against them by wrongly concluding that they have a chronic mental illness.

"Of course someone who has just lost their child feels sad and depressed and has trouble focusing," said Dr. Tressia Shaw, a palliative care physician at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "It's not accurate to label that parent with a diagnosis of depression, when what they're going through is a normal process of grief. A separate provision in the law for grieving parents would solve the problem."

It also would protect parents from the whims of employers, Shaw said.

"I've worked with families who have wonderful employers who are very understanding and give them time off," she said. "But it's definitely not always that way."

Dozens of people who have signed Kluger's petition underscore that point.

"I came back to work within 10 days of my son's murder," wrote Crystal H. of Kansas City, Mo. "I made costly mistakes because I should not have been there."

Dayna W. of Hercules, Calif., wrote of her son's suicide in which he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

"Every day I wake reliving his fall," she wrote. "I had to take off three weeks from work and still wasn't ready to go back."

Tester's bill has been endorsed by the Parents of Murdered Children, the American Childhood Cancer Organization and the MISS Foundation, which offers counseling and other aid to grieving parents.

Tester said he is picking up co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. He also expects to attract Republican support for the bill.

"I would hope we can get it through (the Senate) this year, especially if there's no serious opposition," Tester said. So far, no one has offered a companion bill in the House.

"To me, this is something that has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat," said Van Ostrand, who is raising a 2-year-old daughter born after her son's death. "It's about humanity. Losing a child was an awful thing. If I can help make it a little bit easier for other parents when they're grieving, then something positive will have come out of my loss."