Overcoming insurmountable obstacles, enduring seemingly endless suffering and stress, all while having absolutely no guarantees it will all work out in the end: If you've seen the box-office sleeper March of the Penguins, you know that those tuxedoed charmers will go through just about anything to become parents.
But their endeavors have nothing on the Herculean efforts some HIV-positive individuals undertake in trying to become adoptive parents. These people face different, though just as formidable, foes--most notably, the often devastating stigma of living with HIV.
'Across the board, no adoption agencies we tried were interested in anyone with HIV,' says Shelley McKittrick--whose husband, Al, was diagnosed with HIV infection in 1993--of the couple's search for a child, which included tons of paperwork, weekend trainings, formal classes, and a lengthy application process. 'Despite everything, that closed the door right then and there.'
Unfortunately, AIDS advocates say the McKittricks' experiences are commonplace. Although the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and state-level antidiscrimination laws offer legal protections to HIV-positive people, there have been few court cases challenging adoption agency policies that bar HIVers. And the McKittricks' own research shows that most agencies routinely turn away HIV-positive applicants--more than a dozen cold calls by HIV Plus to adoption groups resulted in automatic rejections.
The McKittricks' struggles were mirrored by those of John and James Doe--who have requested that we not use their real names to protect their privacy--a serodiscordant New Jersey gay couple who sought the help of private adoption agency Children of the World to adopt their second child. After being immediately rejected because John is HIV-positive, the Does took their frustration to court. They filed a lawsuit charging the agency with violating the ADA and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
'We just don't want anyone else to have to go through what we experienced'the rejection and humiliation of being told we would not even be considered for adoption even though we've given our first child a loving and stable home,' says John, who was HIV-positive when the couple adopted their first child.
Back in the HIV Closet?
After they wed in 1998 the McKittricks--who now live in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance--explored countless avenues in their dream of starting a family. Shelley was already over 40 when her first attempt at having children ended in a severe ectopic pregnancy. As they pursued adoptions, however, the most insurmountable hurdle--even above the sky-high costs--was always the dreaded health questionnaires.
'One agency we tried required both tuberculosis and HIV tests,' Shelley sighs. 'Clearly, if you have something like end-stage cancer, then you probably shouldn't try to adopt. But why would the forms only list TB and HIV as the two things they were concerned about--and not cancer, emphysema, or any other classic terminal illness? Why just these two?'
Ironically, Al and Shelley had spent years as AIDS advocates in Denver, where Al served as executive director of the Denver People With AIDS Coalition. 'I used to think the best way to eliminate the stigma was to come out about my infection,' says Al, who says he was infected with HIV by his former wife, who died in 1996. 'But we were getting very discouraged. We really wanted a kid. After being one of the most out people with HIV in Colorado, all of a sudden we had to go underground. I felt I had to.'
Eventually the McKittricks got lucky--they found a pregnant woman looking for a family for her baby, and they used an agency that specialized in designated adoptions to handle the legal paperwork. Now all they needed was a doctor's note that Al was healthy--a physician friend sent a note stating the couple had no 'communicable diseases,' and they were eventually approved.
Baby Grace is now 2 years old and the light of their lives. 'Being parents is fabulous,' Shelley says.
A Step in the Right Direction
The Does' plight has garnered some optimism concerning the future of adoptions.
'Do we see a concern about HIV-positive parents?' asks Rhonda Goldfein, who is the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. 'Yes. Does it have any merits? Of course not. A healthy person living with HIV should not be screened out as a potential parent. You should look at the person right now, not what might or might not happen in the future.'
The courts seem to agree with Goldfein's logic. The Does received a landmark settlement with Children of the World that requires the agency to publish a public apology in the Essex County, N.J., Star-Ledger, implement antidiscrimination policies and training, and compensate the couple for damages.
But will this decision pave the way for others or merely be a blip in society's radar? 'We can't say definitely what the impact will be,' says Jenny Kramer, an attorney with Lowenstein Sandler, a law firm that worked on the case with the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit organization with some of the nation's leading experts on the laws regarding HIV discrimination. 'It's important to educate people, and we hope the results will create more education and help prevent discrimination in the future.
'That would probably be pie in the sky,' she adds, 'but we think this is a step in the right direction.'