Taking her concern for HIV orphans to the top echelons of America’s executive branch, Carolyn Twietmeyer, the Joliet mother of 14, went to the nation’s capital Monday, calling on Illinois to allow more large families to adopt children with HIV.
During a White House-sponsored briefing to observe National Adoption Month, Twietmeyer joined members of President Obama’s cabinet, child welfare experts and religious leaders to address the international crisis that, experts say, has left more than 143 million children without parents in nations decimated by HIV.
Experts underscored the need for international laws to ensure children are not abducted from their birth parents and sold to adoptive parents in other countries. They also discussed the need to overcome constraints in the U.S. child welfare system and encourage churches nationwide to make international adoption more feasible.
Twietmeyer serves as executive director of Project Hopeful, a non-profit dedicated to supporting and adopting HIV orphans. Pointing out that the name is an acronym for Helping Orphans and Parents Eliminate Further Unnecessary Loss of Time, Dignity and Life, she bemoaned the stigma of HIV that persists three decades after the first AIDS diagnosis surfaced in the U.S.
She broke down as she thanked a fellow advocate for helping her reduce the amount of time for an HIV immigration waiver enabling her daughter Selah now 14, to receive the medical treatment she needed to live. At the time, such a waiver took up to 10 months, “which my daughter did not have in country.” The waiver has since been eliminated.
Twietmeyer’s trip to Washington comes on the heels of a journey to Australia, where she and her husband, Kiel, pushed for reforms of that country’s adoption policies.
“The U.S. is seen as a model for adoption and reform in these other countries,” Twietmeyer said. “We have an amazing opportunity to set a standard across the world for adoptions and orphan care.”
But large families, who she insists are best equipped and willing to adopt children with special needs, face limits in Illinois and five other states.
While the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has to approve a home study for every international adoption, the state also must issue a foster care license to parents adopting from countries such as Uganda and the Philippines, where adoptions can't be finalized outside the U.S. Carolyn Twietmeyer wants to adopt a 3-year-old boy with HIV and Down Syndrome now living in an orphanage in Uganda.
Families who apply can be licensed for up to eight children, more with a waiver. Children with special needs count twice, reducing the total number of children that families can have in their home.
Unable to convince DCFS through her adoption agency, Twietmeyer has turned her attention toward finding other suitable parents to adopt Jonathan, who she calls Jojo.
Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for DCFS, said there is no numerical limit on how many children can be in a home. But the number of children is a “legitimate area of inquiry.” Five other states -- Alabama, Colorado, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina -- have similar guidelines.
Marlowe defends Illinois’ screening process, pointing out that in 2011 alone, at least 10 Illinois families voluntarily relinquished their parental rights to children they had adopted from abroad. Three more were placed in DCFS custody because of substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect. One child died under suspicious circumstances in the parents' home, he said. It's unclear if those cases involved large families.
Twietmeyer said the limits imposed on large families are unacceptable.
“Large families like ours or other families with five or more children are being blanketly refused,” she said. “This will cost lives of children. So I find it extremely important.”