Doe v. County of Centre
Mary and John Doe (who chose to remain anonymous) applied in 1998 to become foster parents. Before her marriage to John, Mary had been recognized for her dedication to foster children with special needs, having taken in eight foster children and eventually adopting seven of them. When the couple married in 1996, John readily accepted Mary's adopted children into his home and family. Two of the children, including an 11-year-old boy with HIV, continued to live with the couple when they attempted to open their home to more foster children in 1998. When the Does revealed to Children and Youth Service of Centre County ("CYS") that one of their children was living with HIV, CYS responded by stalling their application for nearly a year and then instituting a policy barring the placement of HIV-negative foster children in homes with children who have HIV. The Does sued the County, alleging that this new policy violated their civil rights under various statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the appellate court stage of the case, on behalf of 13 public health, HIV/AIDS and child-advocacy organizations, arguing that CYS's assessment of the risk was not supported by any kind of objective or sound public health evidence. The appeals court agreed, and the policy was reversed.
People living with HIV continue to be stigmatized and face discrimination in many areas of life, including parenting and family life. The policy adopted by the county in this case — like many ad-hoc policies regarding HIV — was completely irrational and based entirely on unfounded fears rather than objective, scientific evidence. The trial court's analysis and approval of the policy not only reduced placement options for children with special needs, such as those living with HIV, but also had the potential to insulate from challenge under the ADA other challenges to discrimination against persons with HIV.
Lambda Legal's Impact
Lambda Legal's friend-of-the-court brief significantly bolstered the Does' appeal and helped achieve an important victory in the fight against HIV discrimination. The opinion of the appellate court in this case helped stem the tide in that fight by affirming that decisions regarding possible exclusion based on HIV status must be made on an individual basis and that concerns about any "threat" posed must be rooted in objective evidence regarding the potential risks, rather than on irrational fears.
- January 1998 The Does apply to be foster parents.
- December 1998 Citing a new policy barring the placement of HIV-negative foster children in households where someone is HIV-positive, CYS informs the Does that, without a waiver from the actual parent, CYS will consider placing only an HIV-infected foster child with the Does.
- April 1999 The Does sue in the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
- February 2000 The trial court upholds the county's policy, and the Does appeal.
- May 2000 Lambda Legal authors and files a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 13 public health, HIV/AIDS and child-advocacy organizations.
- March 2001 A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit unanimously reverses the lower court's decision.
Mary and John Doe (anonymous)
Matthew M. Gutt of the law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.