Toronto, July, 2016
Dear Donna Gold,
I have wanted to write you a letter for some years. I wonder how things would have turned out differently for my husband and I had I put pen to paper before today. I have wanted to tell this story for some time. I feel compelled do so in the hopes that people with HIV and others will contemplate the issues I explore and the implications of these issues.
Almost ten years ago, you were the Canadian-based social worker assigned to assess our family for suitability in adopting a child. After a long period of time that involved numerous rounds of evaluation, which included undergoing evaluation of our home, arranging for friends to submit letters of support on our behalf, and submitting to a medical examination, we were vetted favourably.
How exciting! That is, of course, until my HIV status was revealed in a letter from one of our referees. The latter had been a long-standing friend, and he disclosed my health condition in reply to a question that asked him to identify and explain reasons that might make us unsuitable parents.
When I asked the person why he disclosed my HIV condition, he said he did not anticipate that my condition would not be known to the social worker. The stakes of this friend’s decision were high: they provided you with the basis to deny our application. As a result, we are a childless couple, despite our desire to parent, and the subsequent actions we took to fulfill this wish.
I want you to know that we were shattered and humiliated by your decision. I remember the last interaction between you and me, which was convened and organized because of my HIV status.
You had insisted that I present to your office alone. You escorted me into a small, bleak room. I was nervous. After ten minutes of questions about my current lifestyle, followed by requests that I review and talk about specific events in the history of my life, you wound around to the aim of the meeting: to discuss my HIV status.
I neither admitted living with HIV in this adversarial setting you created, nor had I done so during our prior encounters. My husband and I had decided not to reveal my status in earlier meetings. We decided to get a medical examination at a walk-in clinic where the physician did not know us.
This decision to safeguard my health status was a difficult one to arrive at because we did not agree. You see, he believed that I should divulge, but he respected my silence. The reasons for this quiet are complex. For one thing, I was new to my diagnosis. I was not yet comfortable with it. Your social position as a white, presumably heterosexual middle class woman from the suburbs also made me uncomfortable and reticent. I assumed that you would not respond well to HIV. That assumption was a life-changer.
Lastly, we did not believe that my HIV was germane to adoption. As it turns out, Canadian lawmakers and the law agree. People with HIV in Canada are not obliged to reveal their condition in this context. This condition cannot prevent persons from adopting.
You and your legal team were clever. You did not frame this situation within the application of the law or the logic of human rights. Instead, you told us that you terminated our adoption process because of my duplicity. You added that trust was key to the relation between social worker and prospective adoptive parents. Since I had lied, you said, bonds were broken.
"While a lawyer at the provincial HIV/AIDS umbrella group wrote a letter to your agency on our behalf, formalizing a complaint using the law and human rights arguments, the organization did not engage in this issue of health-based discrimination beyond this. This illustrates the point that management practices have replaced activism practices in the HIV/AIDS milieu in Canada."
What you failed to understand, though, is that the three of us were never involved in a relation of trust. My husband and I complied with your institutional process. We responded truthfully and fully to your questions. We performed for you based on understandings of what you wanted from us. Such contexts, you must realize, are ripe with myriad tensions, contradictions, and imbalances of power. Rather than investigate the reasons that shaped our decision to remain mum on the subject of my HIV status, or to pause and critically reflect on the politics embedded in your social work role and the professional relationship between us, which would surely have opened up opportunities for mutual understanding, you were professionally affronted.
As you see, your retreat and dispensing with us have unfortunately had sad implications for our family life. While a lawyer at the provincial HIV/AIDS umbrella group wrote a letter to your agency on our behalf, formalizing a complaint using the law and human rights arguments, the organization did not engage in this issue of health-based discrimination beyond this. This illustrates the point that management practices have replaced activism practices in the HIV/AIDS milieu in Canada. Insidious forms of prejudicial and discriminatory practice are more difficult to grasp, but once they are made visible, as was the case here, it is a shame to leave them be.
Resilient and thick-skinned creatures that we are, we did not give up the hope of parenting after you abruptly denied our application. We were screened into an in-vitro fertilization program, for which I accepted to sport the label ‘high-risk’. I passed the psychiatric assessment required of high-risk folks. Unfortunately for us, the cost of the procedure was prohibitive and not publically subsidized at that time. And so we turned our imaginations and efforts in another direction.
Since we have family ties in a particular African country, we journeyed there. We discussed our want to parent with friends who had previously adopted a daughter from within their own/this country. These friends very kindly provided extensive details on their experience. They described the contours of their emotional labour. They also detailed the official and unofficial institutional hoops that were involved in their process.
We met the director of a state-run orphanage who escorted us through the facility’s many rooms and the outdoor areas of the compound. This orphanage is not one that serves foreigners hoping to adopt a child. We read joy and hope in children’s faces. We saw women caregivers knowledgeably and kindly feeding many children. We were privy to extreme physical disfigurement and disability; social conditions from which foreigners adopting via private orphanages in this country, which is the standard and usual route, are deliberately shielded. We were not surprised in visiting and leaving this institution, because, as we knew, the supply of orphaned children is sizeable, but the homes to welcome them are insufficient in number.
Why do we not have an African born child or children? Well, as we would come to find out, negative HIV test results are required as part of the adoption process in the African country in question. This discovery was a blow. This punch ended our quest to be parents.
We are now too old, by subjective and institutionally imposed markers, to become new parents. What a pity, since we have created a good, loving home.
In my experience, living with HIV channels emotional and intellectual attention and triggers reflection on opportunities lost and gained, both real and imagined. We do not have children, which is a fact. What would have life been like had we been allowed to welcome a child, Canadian or African born, into our lives?
Donna, the world is small, as I think you will agree. As it turns out, you and I have mutual friends. I have come to know that you have retired. This story is a testament that your ability to identify the politics of your social position and how these and other factors shaped your social work practice, coupled with your inability to understand and empathize with the politics of living with HIV, left a lot to be desired.
Likewise, your skills at asking authentically curious rather than accusatory questions could have produced rather than foreclosed a home for a child or children had those skills not been limited.
I hope that if your position was filled after your departure, the person who replaced you made the effort to connect the dots between the personal and the political in ways that you did not. Then the momentous task of trying to adopt would generate pleasant rather than painful memories for people overcoming obstacles as they pursue parenthood.