In 2006 when Ricky Stith found out that the adoption of his 3½-year-old foster child Keon was complete, he celebrated at a baby shower his coworkers threw for him. Stith allowed the ladies to dress him up in the infamous traditional baby shower hat. He even good-naturedly stayed in character as well-wishers festooned the hat with little gifts to commemorate the arrival of his new child and the start of his fatherhood.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” says the information technology professional, who was 46 at the time. “I had a new son and was still alive despite living with HIV for more than 10 years.”
Initially, Stith fell in love with Keon when the child was 15 months old. Three months later, he became the boy’s foster parent. The minute that Ricky brought Keon home, life for the once carefree and socially active gay bachelor changed. Parenthood humbled him. But Ricky was happy to upend his day-to-day existence to accommodate his son. Now, instead of spending Friday and Saturday nights at a club or party, Stith enjoyed watching movies with Keon or busied himself washing and ironing his son’s school uniforms for the coming week.
“Before I discovered that I was HIV positive, I never wanted children,” Stith says. “But when I found out I had the virus, my life flashed before my eyes. My mortality became real, and I wanted to share some of my personal and professional success and blessings with a child.”
And so it was in 2003 that Stith, a Washington, DC, resident with a secure government job and sizable income, signed a contract with Adoptions Together Inc. The Silver Spring, Maryland, agency guided him through what would prove to be a cumbersome—and occasionally contentious—adoption process. It assisted him with everything from choosing a child to providing parenting classes, counseling services and legal and medical advice.
The program cost more than $6,000, and on the agency’s advice, Stith hired a private attorney (for another $5,000) to help him cover all the bases. Such are the routine legal hassles and economic considerations inherent in any adoption process. But Stith also faced an intangible and therefore more vexing challenge. He found himself battling stigma because of his HIV-positive status and his sexual orientation.
In spite of making all the right moves as an adoptive parent, Stith was thrown an unexpected curve ball.
“In Ricky’s case the only [real hurdle to adopting Keon] was one created by a homophobic, AIDSphobic state attorney,” says Stith’s attorney, Michele Zavos, founder of Michele Zavos Law Group in Silver Spring. “There were no actual legal obstacles—everyone, including the judge, wanted Ricky to adopt Keon.”
Zavos has handled dozens of same-sex partner and single-person adoptions, including several cases for people living with HIV/AIDS. She consults with clients, educating them about the process and making them aware of various ways to bring children into their families.
Stith says he was ready to start his own family, but to his chagrin, the state attorney—appointed to represent Keon’s interests—attempted to derail the adoption efforts after Stith disclosed to her that he was HIV positive during a home visit. Stith says the attorney assumed, as he once did, that the virus would kill him prematurely. He sensed that she thought this made him a poor choice as an adoptive parent.
“She said since I was HIV positive I probably wouldn’t be around long enough to properly care for Keon,” he says. “I told her that HIV-positive people are living longer with the virus. I also stressed that no parents are guaranteed not to die while taking care of their children.”
Rather than agreeing with him, the state attorney responded by escalating matters, Stith says. She requested that Stith waive his privacy rights guaranteed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and agree to immediately relinquish all his medical records to the court. (The HIPAA Privacy Rule established regulatory guidelines for disclosing an individual’s protected health and medical information to outside agencies—including hospitals, insurers, law enforcement officials and attorneys.) If Stith waived this right, the state attorney—and others—could access his medical history and possibly manipulate the information in an attempt to stop his adoption.
Stith declined to release his records.
“The state attorney wanted me to give up additional information about my health and anything else she could use against me,” Stith says. “It became obvious to everyone involved that this was a personal attack and not just professional protocol.”
Both Zavos and Stith say that the home-study process—a rigorous period of adoptive family monitoring—had already established and documented for the court Stith’s ability to care for Keon and live a normal life despite being HIV positive. Unable to substantiate any valid reasons why Stith should be ruled ineligible to adopt a child, the state attorney eventually withdrew from the case.
But the incident left Stith feeling uncertain and confused. “I really could not understand why the state’s attorney fought so hard to stop my adoption of Keon,” he says.