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Opinion The Guatemala fire tragedy shows why it’s time to get rid of orphanages

Charred-stained dolls placed on a bed of charcoal are part of an artists’ installation placed at the front gate of the presidential house in remembrance of the victims of a fire at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home, in Guatemala City, on March 9. (Luis Soto/Associated Press)

Eric Rosenthal is the executive director of Disability Rights International.

At least 40 girls died in a fire in the early hours of March 8 at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción orphanage which housed nearly 800 children in the municipality of San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. The grisly details of what happened are still not entirely clear. We at Disability Rights International (DRI) had heard that dozens of kids “disappeared” from this same orphanage last September, and that children were being trafficked at Hogar Seguro. We were scheduled to visit the day of the catastrophe to conduct an investigation. By the time we arrived, the fire was over.

According to kids we interviewed after the fire, boys and girls rioted, broke out of Hogar Seguro, and staged a protest about their mistreatment. In addition to being beaten and raped by staff, survivors reported that their friends had been forced into prostitution. After the protest, the boys at Hogar Seguro told us they were locked in a room and beaten by staff as punishment. President James Morales of Guatemala confirmed the fact that the girls were locked in another room — and somehow a fire started. Some say the girls set fire to a mattress in protest. Others think the protesters were being silenced. Some say it took almost an hour for rescue workers to arrive. What is indisputable is that many of the girls burned to death — and many more are still dying in hospitals. Morales has requested for the FBI to investigate the deaths.

How could this abuse and trafficking on this scale be permitted against Guatemala’s most vulnerable children — placed there for their own protection? Sadly, this is a situation DRI has found again and again among the estimated 8 million to 10 million children locked in orphanages and disability facilities around the world. After the terrible tragedy in Guatemala, we are more convinced than ever: It’s time to shut down orphanages that leave the world’s children exposed to danger and neglect.

In Guatemala, our most urgent concern now is the protection of survivors. DRI’s investigation revealed that children were dumped into other abusive orphanages throughout the country — where they continue to face immediate risks. We were told by Guatemalan officials that more than 100 are being held in a school while a few dozen remain at Hogar Seguro. Having heard the screams and smelled the fire, the survivors we met were terrified. They were afraid to sleep at Hogar Seguro another night — in the presence of staff who abused them, in the same rooms where their torture had taken place. Most of the children are being dumped into other orphanages where they face serious dangers and horrible conditions. We found children at the Hogar de Abrigo y Bienestar Integral (a public institution for children with disabilities) sleeping on concrete floors or locked in isolation cells with no staff anywhere to be seen. Infants from 3 months old to boys and girls up to age 15 were living in one room. Twenty children lay on a mat rocking back and forth. Others were strapped to wheelchairs. A boy of about 8 was tied to a metal grate. Many children were self-abusive — hitting themselves, biting themselves, poking themselves in the eye. These behaviors are often the result of emotional neglect that is so common in orphanages around the world.

International donors now support more than a hundred orphanages throughout Guatemala, and thousands of volunteers come to work in them. But to do the most good, government programs and charities need to help children grow up with a family (an extended family member or a foster family, if parents are unavailable). In Guatemala, next to nothing is available to help disabled children remain with their families in the first place — according to the government, there are 134 registered orphanages operating in Guatemala and many more unregistered. Officials we spoke to said that without enough support, many poor families in Guatemala feel that they have no choice but to put their child in an institution. Moreover, there are only 40 foster placements for children with or without disabilities available in the entire country of Guatemala. When it comes to children with disabilities, the government only gives families about 500 quetzales a month (equivalent to about $68) to cover all expenses and specialized care, which is not enough for most families to afford to keep their kids at home.

Most developed countries phased out and eliminated putting children in orphanages at the beginning of the 20th century, but the number of orphanages is on the rise in developing countries. Orphanages are perpetuated by a combination of factors. First: the perception that children with disabilities cannot function in society. Second: the well-meaning but misguided flow of funding from international charities. Third and most sinister: the profit to be made off children. Buying children from poor families is a great way to bring in charity money. In Nepal, for example, the orphanage business exploded as a result of foreign donations — there are about 800 orphanages, mostly around popular tourist locations such as Kathmandu. And whenever children are put away, there are people who will pay to have sex with them, as we have documented in our studies. In Mexico, children have disappeared from orphanages, and were later found to have been traffickedWomen and girls were sterilized to cover up sexual exploitation. In Ukraine, DRI found children were raped by visitors to an orphanage. The 2016 U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Person’s Report on Ukraine stated: “The approximately 82,000-200,000 children institutionalized in state-run orphanages are especially vulnerable to trafficking. Officials of several state-run institutions and orphanages are allegedly complicit or willfully negligent in the sex and labor trafficking of girls and boys under their care.”

If the flow of volunteers and charity went to help families rather than orphanages, the survivors of Hogar Seguro would have a place to go. If families got the support they need, these kids would never be in institutions. As the international community learns more about this tragedy, let us hope that Guatemala takes this opportunity to make real change by directing charity and government funding back to families. The world must recognize that orphanages are dangerous places. Donors who care about children can honor the girls courageous enough to speak out about their own abuse — and help Guatemala change to a system of care that protects children and families.