While most adoptions present challenges, there’s a distinctive set of them facing parents who decide to adopt children living with HIV – a twice-daily medication regimen, lingering prejudice and fear, uncertainty about the child’s longevity and marriage prospects. Yet the number of U.S. parents undertaking HIV adoptions, or seriously considering them, is surging. Most involve orphans from foreign countries where they faced stigma, neglect and the risk of early death. “I can’t think of a more significant way to make an impact than to do this,” said Margaret Fleming, a 74-year-old Chicagoan whose nine adopted children include three HIV-positive first graders. “These kids were, in many ways, the modern-day lepers,” she said.
Ignorance and bias related to HIV haven’t vanished in the United States. But the stigma is steadily lessening, especially compared to many of the other countries that are home to an estimated 2.5 million children with the disease. At forums and over the Internet, parents who have adopted HIV-positive kids are offering advice and encouragement to those who might follow suit. Ryan Vander Zwaag, the youth pastor at a Baptist church, said he and his wife had talked about adoption ever since they married right out of high school. The more they learned about the vast numbers of HIV-positive orphans, the more interested they became in bringing one into their family. Fears about exposing their own family to health risks and prejudice gradually faded as they read articles, attended a conference, and spoke with other parents who had undertaken HIV adoptions. “It’s not that hard,” said Stacy Vander Zwaag. “And there are so many kids who would die without it.”
Throughout most of the AIDS epidemic, only a relative handful of HIV-positive foreign children came to the U.S. because of strict U.S. immigration policies that limited entry for anyone with the disease. In January 2010, that restriction ended – enabling children with HIV to enter as easily as other adoptive children. “That change helped drastically,” said Erin Henderson of Afton, Wyo., who is HIV coordinator for Adoption Advocates. The agency handled 37 adoptions of HIV-positive Ethiopian children in 2010, up from four in 2006, and is also working on HIV adoptions from India, Ghana, Thailand, China and Eastern Europe.