The story begins with a single mom and her five children between the ages of 5 and 13. She won Sales Rep. of the Year for a major real estate development corporation in New York and her prize included an all-expense paid trip to Rio for Mardi Gras. She went to Rio. She partied, and she came home HIV-positive. This was the late 80s and treatment options were few, but fear and ignorance were plenty.
When we met, her health was deteriorating rapidly. She was in and out of the hospital, each time promising her five children she would be back home soon. When she made her last trip to the hospital, she was still promising the children she would be home soon. I think she believed it. The Department of Children and Families began the process of removing the children from the home. I had small children of my own and I appealed to DCF to allow volunteers to care for the children while their mother was in the hospital. They needed to be together I argued. They agreed to allow it.
We took food, and gifts at Christmas and provided supervision. I visited their mother in the hospital and was shocked at how rapidly her condition had worsened. Then came the call from DCF. It was seven or eight in the evening and the caseworker informed me that the mother had passed. She asked if I would go inform the children and then bring them to the DCF offices. Protocol required the children be placed in foster care immediately. The children learned of their mother's death and within an hour they were divided up and placed in separate foster care homes. I wept silently for most of the drive to the DCF office. This portrait is a portrayal of what I felt in those helpless moments.
DCF contacted the extended family in another state asking if they would be willing to take the children. The family refused. Turned out they had children of their own and they were afraid of exposing their children to potential HIV infection. They were concerned that the children may have been infected by contact with their mother. I counseled the family members and facilitated conversation between them and the county health department. After three weeks, they agreed to take the children. They were out of foster care and back together again, living with cousins they knew. One year later I received a call from the family informing me that the children were all together and doing well. The message of this portrait is that compassion does make a difference.