A 7-year-old AIDS victim sparks hysteria, hatred

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

September 02, 1992|By Amy Driscoll | Amy Driscoll,Cox News Service

LAKELAND, Fla. -- She looks too small to be so feared.

Autum Aquino, 7, weighs just 42 pounds. Her long, dark-brown curls corkscrew around her tiny face.

Autum has acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Her doctors recommended she move from her native Maine to the Sunshine State where the climate would be easier on her.

But Florida has not proved to be such a warm place for Autum and her family. Two weeks ago, this frail second-grader became the target of anti-AIDS hysteria and a death threat from members of her new community.

"I was shocked and scared and angry," said her mother, Teresa Dannemiller. "I was ready to turn around and go back to Maine. I figured if that's the way people are going to treat us here, then we should just leave."

Parents at Autum's new school in Lakeland did not want their children to share a classroom with the AIDS-infected girl. School officials arranged an educational forum Aug. 18 for the apprehensive parents and children, but the meeting ended with Autum's mother leaving in tears.

"These people get up at the microphone and say they are good Christian people, and then they judge and accuse and condemn my child," said Mrs. Dannemiller, who contracted the virus from her first husband -- a drug user -- eight years ago, before she knew she was pregnant with Autum.

"The waves of anger coming from those people! I was terrified. I finally just shouted, 'You make me sick,' and I ran out the door."

Scared by the open hostility and sickened by the rejection, Mrs. Dannemiller wanted to move. Residents of Portland, Maine, had always been unquestioningly supportive of her attempts to give Autum as normal a childhood as possible.

But Autum is not ready to give up. "I like school," she said. "I don't want to miss second grade."

She says she wants to go to school "to educate these people." It is an adult-sounding comment that tightens her mother's face.

"I have to think that we're doing some good by bringing AIDS education to the people of Florida," Mrs. Dannemiller says intently. "There is such ignorance here."

School officials are backing Autum and her mother.

"Autum and her family have forced us to deal with AIDS and educate ourselves, which we apparently needed to do," said Gabriele Bloodworth, manager of Health Services for the Polk County School Board. "This is not how I would have chosen to do it, but it has been good for us."

She said several parents have asked to transfer their children out of Autum's classroom if she returns to school. They have said they are afraid the virus could be transmitted though shared school supplies, student bathrooms or the pool.

"We have tried to reassure them about things like that, but there is still a fair amount of fear out there," Ms. Bloodworth said.

After the community's initial rejection, support has poured in. Gov. Lawton Chiles called. Forty neighbors came over to welcome the family. A few of the people at the parents' meeting telephoned to apologize for their outbursts.

Still, Mrs. Dannemiller debated whether to stay in Lakeland with Autum and Autum's sister, 11-year-old J'nette, who does not have the virus. They drew up a list.

There were a lot more reasons to go. They feared for their safety. They were scared by the parents' reaction. They wanted to go back to their doctors and their neighbors and their classmates in Maine.

But one "stay" outweighed all those reasons: courage.

"We are not going to pack up and run away," Mrs. Dannemiller said. "We've thought about it and decided. If the people here don't like it, they can move."

Autum and her family decided she should return to school. A week ago, she entered her second-grade classroom.

"They gave me a bunny and a banner and a big card," she told her mother. "They were wearing shirts that said, 'Lakeland loves you, Autum, welcome to Lakeland.' "

Said Mrs. Dannemiller: "Autum wants to stay, so we'll stay. But if she gets any worse physically, we'll go. I don't want to have to be constantly afraid that someone will hurt my child. She's already under a death sentence. I can't understand why anyone would want to make her life harder."

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