Is the age of impunity finally over—when it comes to killing kids, at least?
An investigation into institutions in Bulgaria by Matthew Brunwasser for the New York Times has uncovered a horrifying, bone-chilling truth: 238 children with intellectual disabilities have died while in institutions. The vast majority of these deaths are a result of neglect and were completely preventable. How can this be happening in the European Union, which was founded on the fundamental values of respect for human dignity and freedom? Easily. Tragically, but easily.
The public should have gotten the message by now that the institutional “care” system for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems is destroying thousands of human lives. The widespread neglect and abuse in these institutions routinely go unpunished. The people we lock away become invisible. And now the dirty secret is out: children are dying because of neglect, and the people responsible are not being punished. Not just in Bulgaria, but all over Central and Eastern Europe. Virtually no one has ever been prosecuted for a crime committed in an institution against disabled children or adults.
But the tide may be changing.
Brunwasser’s article chronicles an innovative strategy: the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee is working with the state prosecutor’s office to investigate deaths inside institutions. The committee’s lawyers are representing children who suffered abuse from their "caregivers," but were lucky enough to survive their institutionalization. It will be interesting to see what happens, whether justice will be served and the perpetrators held accountable. What happens in these cases will send an important message to the world: Does society care about the children it has locked away, or will they continue to be forgotten?
While we wait for the legal system to do its thing, the European Union is providing financing to the Bulgarian government to improve the system and close all of the institutions for children with mental disabilities within three years. There is €20 million to build "facilities" and €23 million to train caregivers.
That is an enormous sum of money. And there is a right way to use it: All of the children who are institutionalized should be placed in the community in families or in family-substitute settings and provided with the support they need—not just to survive if they’re lucky—but to thrive, which is their human right.
Together with the donor, the European Union, we must hold the Bulgarian government accountable for the results. It would be a tragedy if they build a bunch of "facilities" that replicate the big, ugly institutions, just on a smaller scale and in newer buildings. Children need loving caregivers—these aren’t made of bricks and mortar, they are people, just like the 238 children who died. They were people too.