More than crayons, AIDS virus colors life at 2 day care centers

April 10, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

At a day care center in Reservoir Hill, the terrible reality of AIDS intrudes upon the pleasant ebb and flow of childhood.

From counting to coloring, lessons at this Head Start center for children affected by human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, are routine preschool fare. But staff members know that extra doses attention, whether of medicine or of hugs, may be needed.

"The kids have days when they come in with real, real hurts," says teacher Mildred Thomas.

The center, run by the Baltimore City Head Start Program in collaboration with the Chesapeake AIDS Foundation, is free to children ages 2 1/2 to 5 whose families are affected by the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

A second center, in East Baltimore, serves children from infancy to 3 years. And a third, also for infants, is scheduled to open this week.

Together the three centers will be able to accommodate 70 youngsters.

Some of the children who attend are HIV-positive; some already have AIDS; and some are not sick themselves but come from families devastated by HIV.

About half the youngsters are cared for by foster parents or extended families: The real parents are dead, too sick to provide care -- or simply unwilling to do so.

There are about 150 HIV-positive children under 12 in the Baltimore area, according to the city health department. Since 1981, 174 Maryland children in this age group -- a total of 15 last year -- have been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. The great majority of Marylanders with AIDS live in the city.

About 25 percent of all babies born to HIV-positive women are infected with the virus. And by the year 2000, as many as 126,000 children and adolescents nationwide may be motherless because of the disease, according to the Orphan Project, a New York research group.

Many of the families using the Baltimore centers are extremely worried about confidentiality. "There's a real fear among the parents of some one finding out" that HIV affects the household, says Clare Siegel, coordinator of the Head Start HIV project.

Outside the program, some parents haven't even told friends and family. But it is the policy of the centers that each pupil learn the medical truth, as gently as possible.

"When the parents come in, we discuss the issue openly. We talk about guardians, wills and so on," says Ms. Siegel.

But most of the children are too young to understand fully. "They have had blood taken; they may go to the doctor a lot -- but they think everyone does this," she says.

A dozen years ago, doctors thought HIV-positive children would not live very long. "We were told the kids were going to die; the 2-year-olds weren't going to get into Head Start; they weren't going to go to first grade," says Ms. Siegel.

But new treatments have increased the average life span of these children to 8 to 10 years. And there's greater hope for future babies. The number of HIV-positive infants born to infected mothers can be reduced by two-thirds if the women are treated with the drug AZT during pregnancy, according to a new study.

Infected women increasing

Meanwhile, the number of women infected with HIV is increasing steadily. "Last year, there was a 31 percent increase of infection among women in childbearing years [nationally] and a 32 percent increase in the children," says Dr. Peter Vink, acting director of the pediatric AIDS division at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

In many ways, the Reservoir Hill center is like any other preschool: When the children turn 6 years old, most go to regular first-grade classes.

Still, the goal is to offer these children extra support without making any of them feel odd or singled out. Because they come from such varied circumstances, the pupils have different emotional needs.

One child, for example, has no symptoms of infection though she is HIV-positive. However, she is extremely insecure, says her foster mother, Elaine Williams, a former city schoolteacher.

In January, this 4-year-old was placed with Ms. Williams. The little girl's new "family" includes two other foster children: a 3-year-old girl who is very ill with AIDS but attends day care when she is well enough, and a 14-month-old boy born addicted to cocaine. He is healthy now and may attend the new day care center, Ms. Williams says.

She sends her foster children to day care to meet friends and to learn. "I don't have any idea how long [they] will be with me," she says. "But I don't think they should be deprived of anything. Not of anything."

At the end of every school day, the 4-year-old gets anxious. While still with her real mother, the girl was dropped at nursery school one day and never picked up, says Ms. Williams. "I try never to be late to pick her up at school. She has a huge fear of being [abandoned]."

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