[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently, I came across an article, on Facebook regarding a family, in Wichita, Kansas, that was torn apart because of HIV. As I continued to read, it only infuriated me more. How can one’s HIV status be a factor in child custody situations? Is this another type of criminalization, through family law, that individuals are facing due to their status? I know that Facebook can sometimes portray things incorrectly, so I had to find out firsthand what this story was really about.
I initially contacted Donna and Henry through Facebook, and found out that this in fact was a true story. Donna had lost parental custody of her sixteen-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter because she was engaged to Henry, who is HIV-positive. The judge originally ruled it as “HIV posing a risk to the children,” basing her information on a letter written by the children’s doctor in Kansas, and paperwork provided from the lawyer explaining the risk. The letter used by the doctor, documented back in the 1980s, stated that, “in a few cases, HIV has been transmitted when there was unprotected contact between infected blood and broken skin and mucous membranes.”
After getting the initial information, I felt empowered to help this family in any way I could. I myself am originally from Kansas, a mother, and HIV-positive; this could have easily happened to me. I could never have imagined that I had come from such a place that would be so naïve to contraction and transmission of HIV. This has to change, and both Donna and Henry will be fighting and advocating for that change. They want to use and share their story to start that battle.
Donna was born in Vietnam and raised in Wichita, Kansas, where she currently resides. She met Henry approximately seven years ago and remained friends with him over the years. She had learned of Henry’s status prior to developing a relationship with him, but she held no judgments because she was well educated in the field. Henry and Donna began a long-distance relationship, and in April of 2015 Henry relocated to be closer to her. From that point on their relationship blossomed and they got engaged; however, Donna’s ex-husband did not feel the same and did not accept the relationship.
Donna’s ex-husband did a criminal background check on Henry, stalked his Facebook account, and eventually discovered Henry’s status. He then filed a petition to modify custody on May 28, 2015. It had not even been two months before the judge removed the children from Donna’s custody because of Henry’s HIV status. This callous and irrational move in part by the judge fractured Donna’s relationship with her children, her fiancé, and herself.
Donna’s ordered visitation was impossible to have put into place before the next hearing, so unfortunately she was unable to visit her children during the time of removal. Her son is angry, and refuses to speak to her, and her daughter is feeling the effects of child abandonment and parental alienation. Donna has experienced extreme depression, loss in appetite, and dropped out of school because she was trying to cope with the loss of her children. Donna felt stigmatized just for loving someone who is HIV-positive, and Henry even offered to leave just so she would not have to go through this any longer.
Henry feels hurt, not only because his status caused such heartache for the one he loves, but because of the stigma and ignorance of others. He is depressed, anguished, mentally exhausted, and isolated. This situation did not just break Donna’s family apart, but Henry’s father disowned him because of the situation. Henry says he feels like a leper. However, Donna and Henry do not regret contacting the media, regarding this issue, because it allowed them to find representation, with O’Hara & O’Hara, that they originally could not find.
The struggle has been overwhelming, but Donna and Henry feel much supported overall, and, although there are individuals in their community who are not supportive, they feel that this is a perfect opportunity to educate others. They are turning this negative situation into a positive one by trying to file discrimination charges and fight to have family law policies, surrounding HIV, amended. “We will continue fighting, we will not give up. We will advocate for change…we need the support,” they told me.
Donna and Henry want to thank all of the advocates who have reached out to help them, and they are grateful for the support.
If you would like to help Donna and Henry, they have a petition posted on Change.org at http://chn.ge/1fKzbMT, and a GoFundMe account at http://www.gofundme.com/Save_Our_Family, to help with legal support.
You can also contact Henry via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HenryCalderonJr?fref=nf.
Heather Arculeo, a positive woman since 2007, works to educate, advocate, and empower others to make a change because “change is possible even if the transformation seems impossible.” She wants to continue to make a difference in the HIV community because she is not only a peer, a mother, a sister, a wife, an aunt, and a daughter, but also an example to other women living with HIV.