Second Family: A Legacy of Hope

Eye on LSSI, Spring 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Theresa Hicks and her four children were active participants in Second Family for more than 10 years. With Second Family’s help, she made permanency plans for her children in 1996.For 12 years, a small, unique program made a significant impact on HIV/AIDS-affected mothers as they planned their children’s future while coming to terms with their own illnesses and mortality. Second Family, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), was a lifeline, providing the women with support and connecting them to adoptive families from February 1993 until its closing in February 2005.

Second Family was created to meet a need: helping HIV-infected women make permanency plans for their children, preventing them from entering the child welfare system.

With the advent of life-extending drugs, HIV-infected parents are living significantly longer, and the need for the Second Family Program has diminished. In addition, the stigma once associated with AIDS has declined, and more relatives adopt loved ones’ children.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, AIDS deaths in Chicago reached a high of 1,494 in 1995, declining to 489 in 2002. In addition, overall infections in Chicago have dropped from an all-time high of 1,954 in 1993 to 893 in 2003. In spite of these statistics, underlying concerns remain. HIV/AIDS is still a significant public health concern and continues to disproportionately affect people of color and women.

Second Family and Standby Guardianship

In 1991, LSSI was a member of a task force organized by the Families’ and Children’s AIDS Network (FCAN) in Chicago to address the concern that children were becoming orphans as a result of AIDS. Earlier, LSSI had developed Positive Care, a foster care program designed to serve the new population of children affected by the disease.

In January 1993, as Second Family was being developed, a coalition of more than 20 health care, social service and legal organizations joined together to work on a bill to establish Standby Guardianship. The resulting law became effective on January 4, 1994.

Standby Guardianship was designed to allow future caregivers to take on responsibilities for children without affecting the rights of the parents, allowing mothers to care for their children as they became ill. Before Standby Guardianship “families didn’t have the ability to get a court-ordered appointment if they were unable to care for their child,” says Linda Coon, an attorney who led the effort for the law.

In 1996, Second Family received the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation, a national honor recognizing innovative programs that make a difference in peoples lives and “create a new dimension of service.”

A Family for Families Affected by HIV/AIDS

Second Family’s work quickly became about more than just finding “second families.”

“Families who are HIV-positive are isolated,” explains Elizabeth Monk, AIDS project director for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). “[Second Family] brought those families together outside of a clinic setting.”

The program’s support group and social activities “created such a spirit of family within the whole program,” says Joe Masbaum, a caseworker at Second Family from 1997-2004. “Families ended up looking at staff as extended family. The women linked up with other women and got a lot of support….”

During his seven years with Second Family, Masbaum says that approximately ten women in the program died. But dealing with death was only a part of the program.

“People totally trusted the staff,” says Masbaum. “[Death] is something so personal; you just feel like it’s an honor [to be with them in their dying].”

“No matter what time of the night it was, Joe [Masbaum] or Lynda [Robinson] was there,” says Theresa Hicks, of her Second Family caseworkers. When her daughter’s father was dying, “Joe was there every day to comfort me … he knew what to say to let us know we got hope.”

A Beloved Program

Although the Second Family program has closed, LSSI still is active in providing support for families dealing with HIV/AIDS. LSSI’s Positive Care is currently one of three programs in Illinois designed to serve such children.

“We’re still very committed to serving families affected by HIV,” says Mike Bertrand, program director of LSSI’s Children’s Community Services in metropolitan Chicago. LSSI refers families that need to establish legal plans for their children to Family Options. In addition, LSSI provides HIV/AIDS education and prevention services through its substance abuse programs in Chicago and also links HIV/AIDS affected/infected children and families with the resources and services they need.

The Second Family program has left a significant legacy: About 128 children are living stable lives with their adoptive families, knowing their mothers did everything they could to assure their safety and well-being; 74 second families have provided love and support to children during the most difficult time in their lives; more than 150 HIV-infected women were able to connect with community resources, get the medication they needed and learn how to live with HIV/AIDS; and countless families will benefit from Standby Guardianship. In addition, by preventing children from entering the child welfare system, Second Family saved the state of Illinois more than $2 million.

The program, like the families it served, will live on in the hearts of all who were touched by it. Clients, staff and supporters continue to express a great deal of affection for Second Family. “It’s hard to see this program go,” says Coon.

The foresight of those who created the program, the care of those who carried out the mission and each child and adult who believed in the program will never be forgotten.