By Patrick Markey
Forty young faces crowd onto a small shelf in Sister Elizabeth Mullane’s Brooklyn office.
The tiny, framed photographs are her daily remainder of young lives cut short; each is a child she has seen buried after losing to the ravages of AIDS. Another 54 she has seen slip away have no photograph.
Mullane has seen her share of suffering in the decade since she took the helm of St. Vincent’s Services Positive Caring Program, a foster care program for children infected with the HIV virus.
But she has also seen plenty of hope where before there was none.
The Caring Services Program, which is partly funded by New York City and private grants, is now considered a model for similar initiatives nationwide. While the photographs testify to the difficulties of dealing with the disease, the Positive Caring Program has managed to improve the lives of hundreds of other children who might otherwise have not stood a chance. Since its inception, 425 children have gone through the foster program. Some have been adopted, others have gone back to their parents.
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“We have well-trained foster parents who able to care for children; we’ve been able to advocate for the needs of these children at the city and the state level. So we are an organization at the forefront,” said Mullane, an Irish American whose family roots are in County Cork.
In the early 1980s, at height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, the president of St. Vincent’s Services, Msgr. Robert Harris, saw the gap in services available for children infected with the HIV virus. After lobbying state government for funding, Harris recruited Mullane to help design the program. Before starting at the program, Mullane already had a decade of nursing experience and had spent years providing home care to patients with HIV and other chronic diseases.
Potential foster or adopting parents are given intensive training over 12 weeks to ensure that as much as possible they can deliver the child’s health needs, such as monitoring medication, therapy and infection control. It is a demanding task.
Some of the foster parents are motivated by feelings of altruism. Others have lost a family member, neighbor or friend to the disease and are acutely aware of how harrowing the experience can be. Some simply feel it is a calling, Mullane said.
“The foster parents on a whole are a very special breed. They are taking on a disease which has many social issues and prejudice,” she said.
Recently, AIDS education has broken down some of the prejudicial barriers and heightened awareness. And medical advances have taken away the certainty of death in some cases. This has allowed program workers to shift their focus from dealing with death to helping people live with the disease and its chronic issues.
“Children who would be dead now are now talking about going to college. It’s more hopeful than five years ago,” she said.
But the stigma lingers.
“As recently as last year, one of our children was to be placed in a school in Long Island,” she said. “That school district refused to allow not only the child, but also a sibling who was not infected. There is still fear.”