The plight of AIDS orphans

April 01, 1993

Infected with AIDS, Catherine Williams was consumed with worry. Her concern was not about her approaching death, but about the fate of her four-year-old daughter Elizabeth, also infected with the AIDS virus. When Ms. Williams dies, Elizabeth will be an orphan.

Her worry has ended. Ms. Williams has found a Carroll County family that will take in both her and Elizabeth, although a great many legal issues have to be settled first.

Ms. Williams is not alone. There are as many as 144 women in Maryland who find themselves in the same situation. By the year 2000, the Centers for Disease Control estimates there may be as many as 80,000 AIDS orphans, of which 20 percent may be HIV-infected.

It has taken nearly two years to locate a foster home or adoptive parents for Elizabeth. Mary Gail Hare's moving story in The Evening Sun about Ms. Williams' plight has resulted in more than two dozen people offering to adopt Elizabeth or help Ms. Williams. One person volunteered just to be "her friend."

It is increasingly clear that traditional methods for dealing with orphaned children are not working. Normally, a close relative would adopt a child like Elizabeth, but her relatives are not in good health. Even if they were, they might not want the responsibility of taking care of an AIDS child. Social service and adoption agencies also aren't coping well with the special circumstances of AIDS either. Ms. Williams insisted on meeting and getting to know the adoptive parents, which runs counter to the traditional agencies' desire to keep the two sets of parents from knowing each other.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a great reservoir of people willing to adopt AIDS orphans. Adoption agencies have to alter their procedures so links can be made between the dying parents and the people willing to adopt their children. If these agencies can't change, we need to create some new ones.

Protecting the adoptive parents from financial ruin is equally important. Parents who adopt children infected with the AIDS virus run that risk when the disease develops. People with such generosity of spirit should be rewarded, not punished, for their willingness to take on the burden of raising a child they know will die.

Ms. Williams is a brave woman to have told her story. She reminds us that AIDS is not confined to one geographical area or socio-economic group. We are all vulnerable to this dreadful disease, and we need to deal with all of its consequences. American society must act quickly to ensure that Elizabeth and all the soon-to-be orphaned children are placed in loving and caring homes.

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