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ADDICTED TO LOVE

Megan Ross shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She was growing impatient and leaned over to peek into the basket on the floor by her side.

Someone was droning on about the status of anonymous AIDS testing. More of the same old, same old...as the agenda of these meetings of the Governor's AIDS Council tended to be. Then another report, this one about the possibility of government cuts in funding for AIDS services. Nothing new there, either. Money, and how to divvy it up among competing interests, was always the most contentious issue--it had been that way ever since Megan first got involved with AIDS services fifteen years before, back in California.

She had been asked to join this council in August 1994. Its membership was composed of a variety of people--medical, political, legal and agency representatives--who advised Governor Roy Romer and the General Assembly on AIDS policies and funding. The members were wonderfully dedicated people, Megan thought, but Colorado sometimes seemed so far behind the rest of the country when it came to fighting AIDS, it was all she could do to sit still.

At last the discussion reached the topic on the agenda that most interested Megan: a proposed needle-exchange program. When she'd moved to Colorado two years earlier, she'd been shocked to find that the state didn't have one. In such programs in other parts of the country, enrolled drug users could swap used hypodermic needles for sterile ones in order to prevent the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The council had been debating the matter for the better part of a year; last summer it had finally voted to recommend establishing needle-exchange programs throughout the state. But since then, the group had gotten mired down in debate about how, exactly, this was to be accomplished. For starters, law enforcement agencies were hesitant to back the programs, worried they might encourage drug use.

Some people still didn't get it, Megan thought. This wasn't about creating new junkies. Although no one deserved to get AIDS, there was a whole category of victims out there whose only "sin" was that one or both of their parents had used needles that transmitted the virus: Children. Some were even free of HIV but had been tainted by people's fear of the disease nonetheless.

And here the council was, still talking. Finally, Megan had had enough. Picking up the basket, she stood. "I've heard about needle exchange for many, many years," she said, "and just assumed that, along with condom distribution, any tool that could help prevent transmission was being used, especially in major cities across the United States.

"I've had eleven foster-care children that were HIV-positive, and five of them died in my arms from AIDS," she continued, struggling not to cry. Reaching into the basket, she produced a sleeping infant. "I now have twelve. This is Joey, and he is eleven days old...His mother is HIV-positive."

That Megan Ross would try to mother as many unwanted babies as she could surprised no one who'd known her long. Born and raised in Portland, at the age of ten Megan had happily graduated from her doll collection to caring for her two younger sisters so that their mother could work.

Unlike other girls who might have rebelled at so much responsibility, Megan reveled in it. She fed her sisters, read them books and put them to bed. In high school she even took them along on her dates. When Megan got married and became pregnant shortly after graduation, her sisters still called when they needed someone to bake cookies for a school party or to ask for advice.

Megan gave birth to Kristina and, two years later, Konnie. Her marriage fell apart soon afterward, but that was okay with Megan. She had married so that she could have children, and although she liked her husband, she was beginning to realize that she was not attracted to men.

Megan and her girls moved to Southern California, where she enrolled in college. By the time Megan's daughters were in high school, she'd earned a degree in child development. Her first post-college job, however, was in drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling. It was at this post, in the late Seventies, that Megan first started hearing about a new disease that preyed on homosexuals.

For Megan, by then a gay activist as well as a drug counselor, it seemed only natural to get involved in the fight against AIDS. And when there was an opening for director of the Gay and Lesbian Service Center, a Long Beach, California, agency devoted to AIDS education and services, Megan applied. She got the job. It was now her business to learn all she could about the disease. Education was the key to containing AIDS, she believed, and she soon began teaching courses for the Red Cross, talking about the importance of practicing safe sex.

AIDS was also spreading into the heterosexual community, largely through drug use. What, Megan wondered, would become of the children whose mothers and fathers were too sick to care for them? Fearful of the spread of AIDS, daycare centers rejected children whose parents had the disease, and who might themselves be infected. Even doctors and hospitals sometimes refused to treat these children.

In 1991 Megan Ross established Baby Buddies, using volunteers to provide everything from child care to housekeeping for families affected by the virus. "We want to replace the parents, the neighbors, the friends who have turned their backs and walked away from these people," she told the Los Angeles Times. Within two years the program had attracted 132 volunteers and helped 176 families in the Orange County/Los Angeles area.

Still, Baby Buddies didn't address the needs of children left alone--children whose parents had either died or abandoned them. Foster homes, worried about possible AIDS contamination, often wouldn't accept them. At the time, the only test available for these children registered not whether the AIDS virus was present but whether antibodies produced by the body to fight HIV were present. For the first eighteen months of their lives, however, infants carry all their mother's antibodies--even though they might never be infected with HIV. In fact, only one in three infants testing positive for the antibodies ever gets the virus.

But those odds didn't register with many foster parents. So Megan applied for her own foster-care license.

"We have a three-month-old girl with AIDS," came the first call from a social worker. "Will you take her?"

"Of course," Megan replied, thinking she'd have a few days to prepare.
"Good. We'll be there in twenty minutes."
The three-month-old girl turned out to be a three-week-old boy. He was tiny, only four pounds, labeled a "failure to thrive" baby because he could not keep food down. His mother, a prostitute and drug dealer, was in prison; she'd been high on PCP, a powerful hallucinogen, when she was taken to the hospital to deliver. The baby was born addicted to heroin and crack cocaine and had tested positive for HIV antibodies. If the boy lived, the social worker told Megan, his aunt and uncle would take him. But his aunt had just had a baby herself and wanted to get settled before taking on her sister's child.

Besides, the social worker added, "We don't think he'll survive long."
Megan took the screaming infant into her arms. It didn't matter how long he lived: Every child deserved to be loved, whether for a few days or many years. She decided she would call him Buddy, after the program she had started.

Life with Buddy was hell. Failure-to-thrive babies usually are fed through tubes, but Megan fed the baby by hand every hour, in hopes that some nutrition would reach his body before he threw it up. Worried that he might choke on his vomit, Megan didn't dare lay him down at night; she propped him up in a car seat next to her pillow and slept with her hand on his chest to make sure that he was still breathing. Not that Buddy let her get much sleep: He spent much of the first six weeks trembling and screaming--a high-pitched, animal-in-pain noise--from drug withdrawal.

With Megan's love and support, Buddy survived. Weeks stretched into months. She took the baby with her everywhere, if for no other reason than it was impossible to find daycare. She brought Buddy to speaking engagements, television interviews, even the classes she taught for the Red Cross. The large woman and the tiny infant became celebrities in the community, and Buddy's story drew hundreds of volunteers into Baby Buddies and other programs launched by Megan.

Megan loved Buddy as much as she had her own daughters. He was so brave and good and smart. But he was nine months old, and she'd soon have to relinquish him to his aunt and uncle. The day before she was to say goodbye, Megan took Buddy to all the places he'd made friends--the police department and fire station, favorite restaurants, the library. She was not the only one crying when they left.

The next day, Buddy's aunt and uncle arrived as planned. But with tears in their eyes, they told Megan they simply couldn't handle another child...especially a child with so many needs. And, embarrassed, they admitted that other members of their family were afraid of Buddy, afraid of the disease he might not even have.

"You love him and he loves you," they said. "Would you keep him?"
Megan didn't know what to say. She was fifty years old and didn't have much money. She'd agreed to take children in, get them started; she'd never thought about adopting one. Hell, she'd be seventy years old when Buddy was ready to go to college...if he lived that long.

She told the social worker that Buddy should be adopted by some young couple who could give him all the things she couldn't. But the social worker told her the hard facts of life for such a child. "If you don't take him, he'll end up in an institution," she said. "There'll be no one there to hold him when he wakes up with his nightmares."

Megan looked at the active young baby with the bright brown eyes. She couldn't do that to Buddy. She'd take him.

The next day they again made the rounds of the community. Buddy was staying where he belonged.

Buddy's mother agreed to give him up for adoption. She was in the prison infirmary with uterine cancer, a byproduct of AIDS. Megan knew from Buddy's aunt and uncle that his mother hadn't always been as she was now. A popular kid in high school, she'd been a cheerleader, a good student. They'd sent Megan baby pictures of her--a happy, smiling infant who looked a lot like her son.

His mother even sent a goodbye message to Buddy: "Although it was very difficult for me to write you this little letter, I figured I owe you far more than this, but it's all I have and you deserve it.

"I love you very much, so much that I had to give you to someone who could give you all that I couldn't. I just want the best for you.

"Well, my love, you're a beautiful little boy. I hope you'll be all you can be and fulfill your every dream. Be happy. God bless you. Love always. Your Mommy."

Buddy was lucky. He had Megan--and he didn't have AIDS. When he was eighteen months old, his test for the HIV antibodies came back negative; he had seroreverted, and there was no sign of the virus. Although he suffered from nightmares and sometimes was unable to control his emotions, for the most part Buddy was a healthy, happy toddler.

Other children who came to Megan were not so fortunate. A little girl arrived, just three days old and already so sick that she lasted only two weeks before she was back in the hospital. She died there in Megan's arms. Megan gave some children nicknames, but others were just "Baby"--somehow it was easier to let them go. When a baby was dying, Megan would hold him close and talk to him, tell him there was a better place waiting. And that he was loved. She had never been very religious, but she had to believe those small souls would get another chance.

At least their suffering was over. Other children showed no signs of the disease but still could not be placed in homes. Perfectly healthy babies, they should have been snapped up by couples eager to adopt. But these children came with medical paperwork that noted they had been born to HIV-positive mothers. By law, any prospective parent would be shown the records--and even the most desperate to have children might hesitate.

As a result, such babies went unwanted and unloved. "If they were drug-addicted, they wound up in institutions, hooked up to feeding tubes and kept tranquilized," Megan recalls. "The others just bounced from foster home to foster home. Not many people are willing to take a chance."

Megan didn't want to raise her new son in Southern California. She considered moving back to the Pacific Northwest, but after talking to officials at Denver's Children's Hospital, which has an HIV clinic for children, and at the Colorado AIDS Project, she thought she was needed in Denver. In 1993 she and Buddy moved to Colorado.

Here Megan founded the Children's Connection, a program modeled after Baby Buddies and affiliated with Rainbow House, which provides daycare for children infected with HIV as well as children whose parents have the virus.

Megan again applied to take in HIV-affected children as a foster-care mother. Her first charges were two brothers, a newborn and an eighteen-month-old. Their mother, a prostitute, had been found passed out in a Denver alley; the children were discovered locked in the bathroom of a motel.

The infant had AIDS; his older brother tested positive for HIV antibodies, but he had more immediate problems. His hair was long, matted and dirty; he fought tooth and nail to stay out of the water when Megan tried to wash him. Then he refused to sleep in a crib. Instead, he curled up on the floor, sleeping next to her bed like a dog.

More disturbing, he was unable to accept love and affection. Any attempt at a hug would set him off like a wild animal. The boys were their mother's ninth and tenth children; all the rest had been taken from her, too, because of neglect.

The infant died soon after Megan brought the boys into her home. His older brother was just beginning to come around when the courts ordered that he be given back to his mother. "I've never seen him again," Megan says. "I'll always wonder what happened to him. I doubt it was anything good."

In November 1994 Megan got another call to take a baby, a five-month-old boy who had tested positive for HIV antibodies that he'd gotten from his prostitute mother. Jordy, as Megan named him, arrived looking like a poster child for famine-relief efforts. His skin hung from his bones and his eyes bugged out of his thin face. But Jordy was not a failure-to-thrive infant, Megan informed the social worker. "He's a failure-to-be-fed baby," she said.

By now, a new test had come on the market that checked not for antibodies, but for the AIDS virus itself; it was said to be 95 percent accurate. Children would still have to be tested for two years, just to be sure, but they wouldn't be wrongly labeled. Megan had Jordy tested again, and these results came back negative. With a little food and a lot of love, he would be a healthy boy.

Still, the agency couldn't find him a permanent home. Jordy's grandmother was already taking care of his three older siblings, and she couldn't take any more. So last fall, a social worker suggested that Megan adopt yet another son.

In the months since she'd taken him in, Megan had grown to love Jordy, an irrepressible tyke who followed Buddy around like a puppy. But what kind of a future could she provide? She was a grandmother, while he was a lively little boy. She was only being offered the chance to adopt him because of his AIDS legacy.

"If I had wanted to adopt Buddy or Jordy under normal circumstances," Megan says, "I would have been laughed out of the adoption agency. I was the wrong color, the wrong age and the wrong person financially. I pretty much scrape by month to month."

But when the social worker outlined Jordy's likely fate if Megan didn't adopt him, she realized she had no choice. Besides, the social worker noted, Megan had one thing in abundance, the thing children needed more than anything else: love.

In late October Megan took another call about a baby in need. This time, though, the story was different. The child's mother was neither a prostitute nor a drug user. She was a soft-spoken twenty-year-old from a good family; her mistake had been to have unprotected sex with a man who had used drugs.

The mother's family was supportive. Still, she knew she wasn't in any position to properly care for an infant, especially because she might get sick from the virus. She decided to give up her baby while there was a good chance of his being adopted.

In the meantime, the baby came to Megan. She called him Joey.
Looking at the infant, Megan remembered the endless AIDS council debates over the needle-exchange program. His young mother hadn't even used drugs, yet she and Joey might pay with their lives. Why couldn't people see that this wasn't about junkies?

Megan decided to put the proof right before their eyes. With his mother's permission, she took the baby to the November meeting.

"This is Joey, and he is eleven days old. His mother is HIV-positive," Megan told fellow councilmembers. "The good news is that he tested negative...He is a perfectly healthy baby that should be in an adoptive home already...but because of the paper trail, he will be labeled and suffer discrimination, and he may not be adopted because of fear.

"I guess my point is, if we were using [needle-exchange programs] and not arguing if we were going to create one more drug user or one more teenager who goes out and has sex, maybe these scores of children wouldn't have these problems...Maybe these kids would not have died."

Megan finished to applause.
"It was a big surprise," says Karen Ringen, director of the council. "And I think a very effective one. People tend to think of substance abusers being the only ones who suffer when they get AIDS from dirty needles. But the reality is they pass it on to their sexual partners and their children."

Ringen understands the frustration of those who believe a needle-exchange program has been a long time coming to Colorado. "Other foster mothers who care for infants with HIV are absolutely shocked that needle exchange is illegal when they know what happened to the children under their care could have been prevented," she says.

In New Haven, Connecticut, a study showed that city's needle-exchange program reduced the transmission of HIV among drug users by 33 percent. In New York City, drug users enrolled in a needle-exchange program were 50 percent less likely to get HIV than those who weren't enrolled, according to another study. And, Ringen notes, those studies also indicated that drug users participating in needle-exchange programs were more likely to seek treatment to end their addictions, an important component of the Governor's AIDS Council's proposal.

At one point, a council subcommittee had considered asking the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to declare a "medical emergency" that would have effectively legalized needle-exchange programs. But not all health department officials would sign off on the idea. "And there is some question as to which law would take precedence," adds Ringen.

Since the November meeting, the council has notified Romer that it intends to introduce legislation legalizing a needle-exchange program in 1997. The "political will" to enact such a measure does not exist this year, Ringen says. To make sure it does by next year, the council plans to marshal support from the medical and legal professions.

But Drug Watch Colorado, a grassroots anti-drug lobby, already has come out against any change in the 1980 paraphernalia laws. Beverly Kinard, the group's director, says the proposal to create a needle-exchange program is being advocated by "pro-drug" forces.

Tell that to Megan Ross. She left the November meeting wondering what would happen to Joey.

She didn't have to wait long for an answer.
Isabel and Tom moved to Denver last fall. They're young professionals with a nice home, a friendly dog and a solid marriage. Only one thing was missing: They couldn't have children.

They went to an adoption agency, where they were asked if they would consider taking a special-needs child...maybe one whose mother had tested positive for HIV. An estimated 82,000 children now living in the United States were born to HIV-positive mothers. According to Colorado health department statistics, 8 children under the age of thirteen in this state have AIDS, and another 24 are reported to have HIV. Most of the children got the virus through their parents' drug use.

Isabel and Tom knew all about the obstacles such children faced. Before they'd come to Colorado, they'd volunteered at an agency that worked with kids whose mothers had HIV; they understood what heartaches came with these kids. (And because they also understand the prejudice sometimes leveled at these children, they asked that their last name not appear in this story.)

At that agency, they'd been drawn to a little black girl who was HIV-positive. But when Isabel and Tom brought her home to visit, their neighbors hauled their own kids inside. "They wouldn't come back out until the little girl was gone," Isabel recalls. "Friends didn't come over anymore."

Isabel and Tom refused to give in. In fact, they tried to adopt the little girl. Her mother was in prison and didn't want her; her grandparents never visited and made no effort to get her. Still, the courts wouldn't allow the adoption. For one thing, Isabel, who's Hispanic, and Tom, who's white, were not the right color.

They were still trying to get the court to change its ruling when they moved to Colorado. In the meantime, though, they wanted to meet the little boy they'd heard about at the Denver adoption agency. And that's how they wound up at Megan's house in Broomfield one afternoon.

"Welcome to my home," Megan said, inviting the couple and a social worker in. Her living room was crowded with dozens of dolls, many of which she'd had as a child. Boxes of toys occupied what little floor space wasn't already taken up by a Christmas tree. Buddy and Jordy wrestled and chased each other from room to room.

"It was obvious that this was one woman with a huge heart," Isabel recalls. "A woman who really loves children."

"This is Joey," Megan had said, handing Isabel the infant.
It was love at first sight. The couple went home and talked about what the next step would be. Joey had twice tested negative for HIV. Still, there was a slight chance he might have the virus. Would they be able to watch him get sick, maybe die, and still be there for him?

There was only one answer. Every child deserved to be loved.


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