FINKSBURG -- The 9-month-old twins who had been so brave fighting the AIDS virus smiled at Paulette Fernekees as she carefully bundled them into their snowsuits. They didn't know there was a state trooper in the driveway and three caseworkers waiting to take them away. They didn't know this was goodbye.
But Mrs. Fernekees and her husband, Bill, knew.
They were seeing, perhaps for the last time, the foster children they had loved and cared for over the last six months. Officials at the Associated Catholic Charities of Baltimore -- which had placed the babies with the couple -- had changed their minds.
The Fernekees weren't told where the twins were going, the couple said. Officials gave them less than a day's notice they were removing the babies.
Mrs. Fernekees says she nursed the twins through serious illnesses. She recalled nights in their hospital rooms, vowing not to lose them to the AIDS virus weakening their bodies.
On Wednesday, the Fernekees did lose the children -- not to a deadly disease, but to a foster-care system and agency Mrs. Fernekees said she had "dared" to question.
Mrs. Fernekees believes the twins were taken because she complained about a reduction in her monthly stipend, and because of personality conflict with Catholic Charities' foster-care director.
Catholic Charities refuses to discuss the case.
"They told us our home was not 'ethnically appropriate' and that we were 'not a good fit' with their program," Mr. Fernekees said. The Fernekees are white, the twins black.
Mrs. Fernekees said Catholic Charities normally pays $600 a month per child for foster children. For children at risk of getting acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the amount is increased to $800.
Because the twins are HIV-positive with multiple health problems, the couple originally received $1,150 apiece. Within a month, Catholic Charities lowered that to $800 per child, saying the twins were not "sick enough" to warrant the extra money, Mrs. Fernekees said.
She contacted the state Department of Social Services, which oversees foster-care programs.
"I was real busy trying to keep the children alive," she said. "I poured my heart into these children. I was willing to discuss any problems and rise above petty differences."
She said a DSS caseworker promised to schedule a meeting among all parties, and the Fernekees thought that's why Catholic Charities called. Instead, they were told the children would be removed immediately.
"Where are the morals; where are the children's rights?" Mrs. Fernekees asked.
She called removing the children a "real about-face," since a caseworker had asked recently if the Fernekees would be interested in adopting the twins. Emotionally and financially, the Fernekees, who have three children of their own, said they felt they couldn't afford to take that step.
James E. Rowe, a registered nurse and regional health coordinator for Western Maryland through the state's AIDS Administration, who had visited the home several times, said the "quality of care those children received was outstanding. There was a lot of love and nurturing."
Marcia B. Frezza, Catholic Charities' Specialized Foster Care director, refused to discuss the case.
"We trust that the consultation process we go through leads to the best possible decision for the children," she said.
Sue Fitzsimmons, a DSS spokeswoman, said the state buys care contracts from several organizations, including Catholic Charities. Those agencies then have control of placements and licensing.
"Catholic Charities has custody of the children and the legal authorityto remove them," Ms. Fitzsimmons said. "No organization would take that step arbitrarily. We don't have enough foster parents. We don't want to alienate any of them."
Mrs. Fernekees said the babies thrived in her home. She held out hope they would shed the human immunodeficiency virus, along with their birth mother's antibodies.
Dr. Daniel Levy, the twins' pediatrician, said about 70 percent of at-risk children eventually "convert to normal."
Mrs. Fernekees will never know what has happened to the babies she loved as her own. No one asked for medical information, feeding or nap schedules before taking the twins.
"I just know he is going to get sick, and who will stay with him?" she asked through her tears. "I know she will be talking soon, and I want to hear her.
"You don't do this without falling in love."