"The first thing I thought when they told me my diagnosis in 1991 was that my dog was going to outlive me. The second thing was that my dream of having a child was demolished," says Jennifer Harvey. Twelve years later, Harvey, now 49, is alive and well and the proud mother of a 20-month-old adopted baby boy.
It was the advent of HAART in 1996 that encouraged Harvey to finally make the leap and pursue parenthood. But despite the help of an HIV-friendly fertility specialist, a fibroid tumor and then premature menopause -- possibly HIV related -- blocked Harvey's way. Thus began her adoption quest.
Adoption is complex for anyone -- HIVer or not. There are public agencies, the most affordable option, with fees from up to $2,500; private agencies, which charge from $5,000 to $30,000; international adoptions, with pricey fees and travel costs; or a direct arrangement with a pregnant woman to adopt once her child is born. All adoptions, public or private, require an extensive evaluation by a social worker of the would-be parent, including a home visit and a criminal background check -- plus proof that you're in good health.
After much research, many support groups and even more horror stories of adoptions falling through at the final hour, Harvey finally discovered the Adoption Network of Orange County, a private agency that guaranteed adoption. "If an adoption failed, you didn't have to start all over and repay them," says Harvey. So she shelled out $20,000 and began the wait -- an agonizing 14 months.
According to Lisa Bennett, who heads up the FamilyNet Project of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, there is "a hierarchy of preferred parents," and gay men, lesbians and single women are hardly on top. Fearful that her odds as a single woman were already poor, Harvey chose not to tell the agency or the birth mother that she was HIV positive. "I'm usually a very honest person, but when it came to this, I knew that life as I wanted it to be couldn't happen if I wasn't a little dishonest," says Harvey. "I am healthier than a lot of people without HIV. Why shouldn't I have a child?" This got sticky when the paperwork began and her agency, like most, requested a physician's letter stating that she was in sufficient health to care for a child for the next 18 years. Harvey nervously approached her doctor in LA -- and the doctor, sympathetic after her own trouble having children, signed the papers.
While no states explicitly ban HIVers from adopting, Bennett says a life-threatening illness "would generally be considered an important factor. What we know for those going through adoption as gay men or lesbians is, if you're not asked directly about your sexuality, you're under no obligation to volunteer information," she says. "But if you're asked directly, we urge you to disclose, because an adoption can be reversed by a judge if any deception was involved. I'd give the same advice for someone with HIV." In fact, a judge in Florida some years ago reversed an adoption by a married couple once he found out they were both HIV positive -- and hadn't disclosed.
But Harvey, who is dedicated to keeping herself healthy to raise her son, says that sometimes an HIVer has to bend the rules. "There's no way I could explain how lucky and grateful I felt the first time I held my son," she says.
To find adoption agencies by state, call the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse at 888.251.0075, or go to www.calib.com/naic/; 22 states now allow gay and lesbian adoptions -- for gay-friendly agencies, call the Human Rights Campaign at 202.628.4160, or go to www.hrc.org/familynet/adoption_groups.asp.