Forty girls

Forty girls died in the fire at the children’s home in Guatemala. Terrible things happen everywhere, but Guatemala is where our children were born, where our hearts are. The tragedy feels especially close. This NY Times article by Elizabeth Malkin is breathtaking in its description of life for the survivors, many with disabilities and placed in facilities ill-equipped to help them.

An excerpt:

The fire broke out after a group of residents who had escaped from the home were rounded up by the police and brought back. Investigators have said that they believe the girls who died were locked in a small room as punishment. [Executive Director of Disability Rights International Eric] Rosenthal said that boys interviewed at the home last week said that they had been part of the breakout and that afterward they had been locked up and beaten…

Last year, the ombudsman called on the government to shut down the center, where 700 young people were housed, and asked the attorney general to investigate claims that some residents had been sexually abused and forced into prostitution in Guatemala City.

They said they found alarming evidence of the severe neglect resulting from Guatemala’s policy of institutionalization, a policy that has been repeatedly criticized by advocacy groups.

According to the report, the most disabled children were dropped off … and “left to spend their days lying on mats, tied to metal doors, or belted into wheelchairs…  “Children are self-abusive, hitting themselves, poking themselves in the eyes, or regurgitating stomach fluids.” … [T]eachers reported that [survivors of the fire] were “shouting, screaming and hitting each other,” and with few resources and no medical records, they had little choice but to medicate them.

The rest of the residents … have been moved to other facilities across the country. Health Ministry officials told Disability Rights International that seven of the girls were pregnant.

Many of the children at the home were abandoned; others had been placed there by their families. Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities called on Guatemala to end the institutionalization of children.

But without any support from the government, families often have no choice. “It’s absolutely a question of political will,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “It never occurs to them that kids should be with their families.”

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