Woman ill with AIDS seeks home for her child 4-year-old also has the disease

March 09, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Catherine Williams calls her only child the "sparkler" who brightens her life. She wants nothing to dim her 4-year-old's spark, not even the imminent loss of a mother.

At 37, Ms. Williams has AIDS. She uses her waning strength and dwindling time trying to find a home for her child, who also has AIDS, battling a foster care system she finds ill-equipped to deal with parents in her situation.

"Stress and trauma from my death could be devastating to her immune system," says Ms. Williams, who uses her daughter's middle name, Elizabeth, to protect her from discrimination. "If she already is placed in a loving family, it would be easier for her."

The Frederick County woman's problem echoes the case of a New York mother whose plight recently drew national attention.

The story of Rosemary Holmstrom, a 34-year-old mother with AIDS, was picked up by newspapers across the country when she told the New York Daily News how she is estranged from her family, wary of the foster care system and trying to find a home for her 8-year-old son.

Hundreds of people responded. Ms. Holmstrom has met prospective families who might adopt her son, and is considering several. The child, however, has been teased and shunned at school by other children.

By the year 2000, the United States will have 80,000 AIDS orphans, and probably 20 percent of them will be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control. The study did not include breakdowns by state, and Maryland does not have estimates of its own.

"The number of children and adolescents made motherless by the AIDS crisis in the United States is large and rapidly increasing," the study says. "There is ample evidence to warrant immediate action. Children already orphaned cannot wait for the normally slow policy process to take account of their complex needs."

Ms. Williams cannot wait, either. She is fiercely determined to find foster parents and build a relationship with them while she lives. She says she will not hand Elizabeth over to strangers.

But Ms. Williams, a former state social worker with more than a decade of experience in foster care, says she can find no program in Maryland to help terminally ill parents ease the transition for their children.

Ms. Williams believes she contracted AIDS during a relationship that she ended in 1987 when she discovered the man was a drug abuser.

"We were both from small Frederick County towns," recalls Ms. Williams, who says she has never used drugs. "I didn't suspect any problem. I was lied to."

Ms. Williams didn't trace the source of her illness until 1991, when she was having health problems. A blood test proved positive for HIV. She learned that her former lover had died of AIDS the previous year.

The news was particularly devastating because by then Ms. Williams had given birth to Elizabeth, the daughter of a man to whom she had become engaged in 1988.

She and Elizabeth's father lived together for nearly two years. They never knew Ms. Williams was carrying the virus, and Elizabeth's father did not contract the disease. But the relationship failed, the couple never married and they separated not long after Elizabeth was born in January 1989.

"I have always been solely responsible for my child," Ms. Williams says.

Ms. Williams says when she tested positive for HIV -- on the eve of her 35th birthday -- she suspected immediately that Elizabeth, then 2, also was infected.

"I was seriously exhausted and suffering from . . . symptoms common to women with HIV," she says. "Elizabeth had chronic ear infections and the most frightening diaper rashes."

For nearly two years, as the disease devastated her immune sys

tem, Ms. Williams has struggled to keep herself and her daughter well.

"Mercifully, I have met people at their best," she says. "I also have met the absolute worst, willfully ignorant people who treat AIDS patients like animals. I won't tolerate that treatment. It means we deserve it.

"I am proof positive that everyone is at risk," says Ms. Williams, who has a master's degree in social work and serves on two boards at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Elizabeth remains relatively healthy and is developing normally. Her mother, however, is fighting several AIDS-related infections and counting her own life in months.

"I have to operate on a realistic level," says Ms. Williams. "I haven't given up, but there won't be a cure in time to save me. I'm not going to survive, and Elizabeth is going to last longer than me.

"She knows I'm sick and that she has the same bug, and we have talked about my death. She won't understand permanent loss until she experiences it, but she knows Mommy is going away permanently."

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