Foster Children with AIDS
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Foster Children with AIDS

Date: February 19, 2008
By: Bria Scudder
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Sally is a typical 8-year-old. She is described as sweet and loving by people who know her.

But Sally is not her real name; social workers who described her case said they were not allowed to give her full name. And she cannot find a permanent family because she is HIV-positive.

The social workers who describe her story say Sally is constantly moved from foster home to foster home because of the stigmas that come with the virus she carries and foster parents' reluctance to accept her condition. 

The Social Services Department would not provide figures on how many HIV-positive children are in foster care, but social service workers say Sally's case is not unique.

Nor are the problems. Missouri adoption agencies are working to find adoptive parents for children that are HIV-positive, said Jennifer Beavers, director of programs for the Missouri bureau of the Adoption Exchange, a non-profit child welfare organization.

"Families are afraid of the unknown," she said.

Although many people are pushing for open discussion and education about HIV and AIDS, there is still a lack of understanding about the disease and how it is contracted.

Parents are afraid that they or their children will contract the virus, said Kelly Nolan, a social worker for Project Ark, a non-profit organization in St. Louis that provides medical and social support for women and children with HIV and AIDS.

Nolan said she frequently is asked questions such as, "Can I contract it by using the same toilet seat?"

Misconceptions about HIV and AIDS can cause children in foster care to participate in "bizarre traditions," said Stacey Slovacek, a child life specialist at Project Ark. Practices such as cleaning the toilet after each time they use it and eating with plastic utensils and paper plates are encouraged by some foster parents because of the lack of understanding.

"We do a lot of education," Slovacek said, adding that Project Ark tries to educate potential foster parents about how the virus is contracted and rid them of the fear that sharing a home means that they will contract it.

Slovacek said the media take partial blame for the lack of education.

"When you hear about it [HIV and AIDS] in the news, you hear about Africa," she said. "People forget it could be their next-door neighbor."

Slovacek said Sally's hopes of being adopted are always present, but with each placement with a foster family, her hopes of finding a permanent family fade.

Nolan said that children with HIV or AIDS who enter the system usually end up in group homes; Slovacek said children in group homes could have trust issues that are very intense.

Having HIV or AIDS becomes increasingly difficult for children who reach adolescence, a time when they want to date and become curious about sex, Nolan said. She said she has worked with children as young as 12 years old who have contracted the virus sexually.

Nolan also said some teens stop taking their medication because of how difficult it is. "Every time she takes her medicine she is reminded that she has HIV/AIDS, so she doesn't want to take it," she said of one young woman.

Slovacek said this happens because teenagers don't want to be different. "They want to be like their peers," she said.

Beavers said that with the use of prescription drugs, the transfer of AIDS from mother to child is rapidly decreasing. But although science is making it possible to live longer lives with HIV and AIDS, the spread of the disease is an ongoing problem.