"Before we brought Shanice home," Iris Thorpe is saying, "we told all our friends that we were going to adopt a little girl and that she [might have] the HIV virus. We wanted to know their reactions, you know?
"So all of my friends were saying things like, 'We know you're not going to let that stop you!' And, 'All kids need love.' And things like that. And I'm saying, 'Hey! We're still going to do it. We were just trying to check you out.' "
"So, you didn't get any negative reactions at all?" I ask.
"No, none at all," answers Mrs. Thorpe. "All my friends, all my relatives -- they were really, really cool. They treated Shanice just like my other children.
"Everyone has been like that," Mrs. Thorpe continues. "One of the women at work came up to me and said, 'I admire you. I really look up to you.' Things like that surprise me."
We were in the living room of the Thorpe home on the Aberdeen Proving Ground base in Edgewater. Shanice is seated nearby, hugging a stuffed toy named Henry. Shanice is a slender little girl with bright eyes, a round face and a shy smile. She turned 2 just a few weeks ago. Anthony Thorpe, 32, is an Army staff sergeant assigned to the proving ground's testing division. Mrs. Thorpe, 30, is a homemaker. The couple have two boys, Maurice, 10, and Eric, 9.
Iris and Anthony Thorpe adopted Shanice in April 1993 when she was 6 weeks old. Their new daughter was among the thousands of children across the country born each year to women infected with HIV, the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported recently that nearly a third of all new AIDS cases involve intravenous drug users, their partners or their children. AIDS has become the seventh leading killer of young children.
Such statistics are scary. So scary, in fact, that social agencies must struggle to find homes for children born to HIV-infected mothers. Some people fear the risk of infection, social workers say. But many more people recoil from the emotional toll of caring for a small child who may soon develop a debilitating disease that is terminal.
"My husband and I talked about that," says Mrs. Thorpe. "We were especially worried about how our two sons would deal with a child getting sick and dying. But imagine a child spending its entire life in a hospital or with foster parents? If we can give a child a happy life, however long that life might be, wouldn't it be worth it? I grew up without a father. I cannot imagine growing up without any parent at all."
The Thorpes also found that many of their fears were unfounded. Better than 70 percent of the newborns who test positive for HIV at birth are not actually infected. They merely have inherited their mother's antibody to HIV. Shanice, for instance, tested positive at birth but began to test negative for the virus after three months. It appears, scientists say, that children who have only the antibody face no increased risk of actual infection.
But the risk of catching AIDS from an infected child is minuscule anyway, says Melissa Byars, of the Baltimore Family Life Center. The agency recently launched a drive to recruit adoptive and foster parents for HIV-infected children in the Baltimore metropolitan area. People between 25 and 55 who have an income may be eligible. To date, the agency's recruitment drive has had only moderate success -- about 15 households.
"Children are sometimes difficult to place anyway, but with AIDS comes the stigma and fear. HIV is not spread through tears, urine, sweat or saliva," Ms. Byars says. "You cannot catch it from a dirty diaper unless there is blood in the feces, and even then the risk is minimal if you take routine precautions. . . such as washing your hands."
The virus is present in the blood and certain body fluids of an infected person. For any transmission to occur, there must be an avenue, such as sexual intercourse, a shared syringe or a break in the skin.
The Thorpes have agreed to serve as foster parents for another child whose mother was HIV-infected.
"People will tell me that they really admire what we are doing, which is nice," says Mrs. Thorpe. "But I tell them, 'Don't just admire me. Get involved. You can do it too.' "