LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- First, AIDS took away their father. Now, the disease is killing their mother, Dorothea Hollins.
As AIDS weakens her body each day, Ms. Hollins says she fears that Argie, 9, and Tyshameka, 11, will come home from school one afternoon and find her dead.
So Ms. Hollins has decided to begin the inevitable separation by moving into a nearby apartment and leaving them in the care of her parents and her sister.
"Children don't really realize that death is death," said Ms. Hollins, 43. "They know I am dying. I have prepared them for that -- but they don't really know I will be gone."
Argie and Tyshameka are about to join a new class of orphaned children that continues to swell as the epidemic reaches beyond gay, single men to women and entire families.
Nationwide, AIDS has orphaned 18,500 youngsters, most of them uninfected, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Thirteen percent of the 21,000 children under age 13 who became parent-less in 1991, and 9 percent of the 28,000 between 13 and 17, were orphaned because of AIDS, researchers estimated.
By 1995, the epidemic could create 45,700 orphans, and leave more than 80,000 orphaned by the year 2000, the researchers said.
"Unless increased attention and resources are devoted to this vulnerable population, a social catastrophe is unavoidable," according to the study's authors, Carol Levine and David Michaels.
Ms. Levine, executive director of the Orphan Project in New York City, predicted that children orphaned by AIDS will be indelibly marked by the loss.
"These are kids who are going to be scarred from a lot of things," Ms. Levine said. "The death of a parent from a stigmatized disease is going to be a profound blow -- and we need to take account of that."
Dr. Michaels, an associate professor of epidemiology at City University of New York Medical School, said government must offer more support for the relatives who end up caring for orphans.
"We are heading for a real problem that, unless we address [it], will be disastrous," he said.
Ms. Hollins did not know that her husband had infected her with the AIDS virus seven years ago, just before it killed him. She was tested soon after, but the virus escaped detection because it had not yet begun to leave tell-tale signs in her blood.
It was only after Ms. Hollins began to get sick two years ago that she realized she was infected with AIDS. Since then, she said she has come to terms with her own death, and now worries about her children.
"I won't be there -- and they have to go on with their lives," she said.
Unlike many parents with AIDS, Ms. Hollins has planned her children's future. They will eventually move in with her oldest sister.
But even keeping the children within her immediate family hasn't erased all of her concerns.
"Once I die," she said, "I don't know what is going to happen to my children -- and that is one of my biggest fears, because people change."
Social workers say orphans usually do best when they are placed with relatives, although that is not always possible and some end up in foster care.
Another woman with AIDS, Nancy Avila, 26, said she is searching for a new home for her daughter who is 2 1/2 and healthy.
Ms. Avila said she is estranged from the child's father and would fight him in court if he sought custody. She also said she does not want her relatives to take her daughter.
"I am going to have to look into finding some healthy parents who are willing to love her unconditionally -- and I want to be able to meet them. I want to make sure she is going to be OK," Ms. Avila said.