A dozen children with cerebral palsy lie on thin mattresses on the floor of a spacious room. A smell of cleaning products unsuccessfully masks the scent of urine. Nearby, five children are tied to a rough metal frame. They are bandaged from the waist to the ankles, their hands bandaged too, looking half mummified in an attempt to teach them how to stand.
Up to eight million children (pdf) live in orphanages across the world, despite more than 90% having at least one living parent. Disabled children are overwhelmingly represented, and can remain in institutionalized care for life. Harrowingly, young adults raised in institutions are 500 times more likely kill themselves.
For the last 13 years Disability Rights International (DRI) has been working on a worldwide campaign to shut down orphanages and institutions that, in far too many cases, neglect or even abuse the rights of the children. In particular, they focus on people with disabilities. Over their years of research, DRI has documented abuse within state-run, and donor-funded facilities – including orphanages and psychiatric wards – from the Ukraine to Guatemala. In the process they have exposed institutionalization as a worldwide human rights issue.
Last year, when investigating Mexican institutions for children with disabilities, DRI found “atrocious abuses that fall inside the definition of torture”. In Paraguay, researchers found autistic children locked in cages at a state-run hospital. The children were only allowed to spend a few hours every other day in an outdoor “pen littered with excrement, garbage and broken glass”, as DRI described it. There have been reports of forced sterilisation of patients in Mexico – some pressured by health professionals – to cover up sexual abuse within an institution. In Ukraine, the teams discovered that children were given classifications depending upon the “severity” of their disability. Children classed as level three or four were considered to be “uneducable”, and were expected to remain in an institution for life.
Money is a big problem. There is little or no funding for the services that can prevent family separation or for social care networks. Any funding that does come through is often used to renovate or reopen institutions, especially facilities for people with disabilities, rather than support the structures that can help replace them. Although 32 state-run institutions in Georgia were shut and replaced with family and community-based services in the last decade, a 2013 DRI investigation found that US government money had funded two institutions specifically for disabled people, in the years since.