By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 11, 2006
PARIS, May 10 -- At the St. Pantelimon psychiatric hospital in the Romanian town of Braila, a 12-year-old boy lay contorted in a crib with his legs and feet tied over his head during a recent inspection, a Washington-based advocacy group reported Wednesday. His emaciated body was size of a 6-year-old.
Nearby, other children's limbs were tethered to crib bars, their arms and legs bent like pretzels, their bodies the size of toddlers', according to the group, Mental Disability Rights International.
"I have never seen anything so horrible," said the organization's executive director, Eric Rosenthal, who inspected the hospital during an investigation of mental health facilities in Romania. "It looked like a concentration camp. The children were near death, they were skin and bones. Their limbs were gnarled, distorted and atrophied."
The report chronicled Romania's treatment of some of its most vulnerable citizens -- infants, children and young adults labeled as mentally disabled. It was released less than a week before the European Union's executive arm is scheduled to publicly assess efforts by Romania and Bulgaria to improve human rights, curb corruption and meet other requirements for their scheduled entry into the E.U. in January. The report gives new ammunition to people seeking to delay membership.
Romanian officials Wednesday ordered a nationwide investigation "to see if there are other cases in other hospitals," Simona Pela, spokeswoman for the National Authority for the Protection of Children's Rights, said in a telephone interview from the Romanian capital, Bucharest.
Romanian officials and the report said that the children at the Braila facility have since been moved to other institutions and that their conditions have improved in recent months.
Romanian officials said that more than 31,000 children are in facilities under their authority and that an additional 9,000 infants are abandoned each year. They said they did not know how many children were in adult facilities or hospitals that are not under the supervision of agencies responsible for child care.
The findings by the U.S. advocacy group, based on inspections in 2005 and February 2006, revealed continuing abuses of institutionalized children more than 15 years after international donors began funneling millions of dollars into Romania to help dismantle the system under former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu of segregating disabled minors from the rest of society.
Mental Disability Rights International said in its report that "much of the reform in Romania merely transferred children with disabilities from large to small institutions." It said that "almost any child with a disability can be abandoned to an institution."
In testimony before the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee last month, Olli Rehn, the E.U. commissioner overseeing incoming member states, said that "certainly, we all acknowledge that the situation as regards child protection in Romania is now much better than it used to be in previous years."
Romania and Bulgaria have been approved for entry to the E.U., but their date of joining can be delayed until January 2008 if the European body deems them to have made insufficient progress in curbing corruption and implementing various legal, economic, agricultural and other changes.
Supporters of E.U. expansion suffered a setback last year when voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the proposed E.U. constitution. Many opponents expressed concern that adding new countries would increase unemployment and immigration in member nations.
In six institutions visited by the disabled rights organization, investigators found malnourished children warehoused in inhumane conditions. Overworked nurses had little knowledge of treating their medical conditions, the report said. Some of the children were never allowed to leave their cribs.
Many children were so neglected that they turned to self-destructive behavior. "One child sat stabbing himself in the eyes during our entire visit," the report said. "Another ingested a long rope, spat it out and ingested it again, over and over.
"Instead of giving these children attention, the staff tied them down," the report continued. "Some children were wrapped head to toe in bed sheets," and when investigators lifted the sheets "we found many children left sitting in their own urine and feces."