Twenty-five years ago the first cases of HIV were diagnosed. Within a few short years, children were especially hard hit. A growing number of children lost their parents to AIDS. From 1985 to 1990, according to Tim Ross, a researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of kids in foster care in New York tripled, from 17,000 to about 50,000.
“The foster care system in New York City faced a double whammy,” said Ross. “There was an epidemic of crack cocaine use that hit women particularly hard, and there was this new disease.”
So many kids were being put in foster care, it was extremely difficult to find placements for kids with HIV, who had contracted the disease from their mothers at birth. There just weren't enough foster parents out there, and a number of potential foster parents feared the disease, refusing to take HIV-positive children into their homes. “Boarder babies” became a term used to describe kids who were literally growing up in hospitals because they couldn't find homes.
Social workers and foster parents struggled to learn how to care for babies and kids infected with this disease that many health officials themselves barely understood. To help pediatricians adjust, New York City's child welfare administration created a special Pediatric AIDS Unit to test kids in care who might be infected and to train the foster parents taking care of children with HIV.
New programs specifically targeting families affected by the virus also started being developed, like Highbridge Woodycrest, a housing program in the Bronx for families affected by AIDS. That program and others like it prevented infected families from being separated.
HIV And Youth Now
Since then, the impact of HIV/AIDS on families has been greatly reduced. Due to medical advances, there are far fewer babies born with HIV. Dr. Anne Lifflander of the Vera Institute estimates that the infection rate among babies born to mothers with HIV has gone from about 25 percent to less than six percent. The number of adults getting HIV has also gone down. Thanks to better treatments, adults with HIV are living longer and more productive lives.
But teens, especially African-American teens like myself, continue to be at a high risk for HIV. In New York City alone, 1, 180 people aged 13 to 24 in March 2003 were known to have HIV. And that is just the teens who were tested. In 2004, more than half of all people in that age group diagnosed with HIV/AIDS were African-American.
Why is HIV continuing to affect so many teens? Some say it is because we teens think we are invincible. According to a survey by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, close to 90 percent of young Americans do not believe that they are at risk for HIV. This attitude can lead us to have sex without a condom even if we know we should use one. It can also make us not get tested.
For African-American and Afro-Caribbean teens, the typical teenage denial of how HIV could affect her or him is made worse by young men on the down low, a term experts use to describe young black males who have sex with other men while viewing themselves as heterosexual.
Also, black teens in New York City are at high risk for HIV because the neighborhoods where many of us live have high levels of poverty, crime and drug use. Experts say that young people in these conditions are more likely to have what is called survival sex -- sex for money, food, and shelter.
James Bolas, the director at the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, has worked with homeless and street-involved youth who are HIV-positive for over 18 years. Homeless and runaway youth, Bolas noted, often feel that they only have their sexuality as a means of survival. Bolas estimates that as many as ten percent of young people living on the streets in New York City are HIV positive.
Heterosexual young women in poor neighborhoods are also at risk. All of us teens know many young women involved with men in their 30s. Experts say these young women are less likely to insist on using condoms because they are afraid to lose their boyfriends’ financial support. And if they find out they are HIV positive, they might not tell their partners for fear of violence.
But regardless of our situation, the bottom line is that often, unless we teens know someone who has AIDS or HIV, it is difficult for us to absorb the reality that we could get it. I would know. A month before my 20th birthday, my boyfriend of two months found out he had HIV, and it made me nervous and scared. Luckily, my results came back negative. But I want to learn more about this horrible virus so I can be more informed for my boyfriend and myself.
Jarel Melendez, 20, is a writer for Represent, a magazine published by our partner Youth Communication. Additional reporting by Zaineb Nadeem and Adam Wacholder.
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