Children who survived fire in Guatemala are still not safe, report says
March 19, 2017 11:34 PM
AP Photo/Moises Castillo
Shirley Palencia weeps during the burial service for 17-year-old sister Kimberly Palencia Ortiz, a fatal victim of the youth shelter fire, during her burial at the cemetery in Guatemala City, Friday, March 17, 2017. Authorities have said the fire that swept through parts of the institution on March 8 began when mattresses were set ablaze during a protest by residents protesting conditions at the overcrowded youth shelter. The death toll in the fire rose to 40 on Sunday with the announcement that another girl had died of burns.
JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Guatemalan University students protest demanding justice for the girls killed in a fire at a state-run shelter, at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, on March 15, 2017. Agencies of the United Nations for children and human rights urged Wednesday to Guatemala to make profound reforms in the care the children, a week after a fire at a hostel that left 40 dead girls. / AFP PHOTO / JOHAN ORDONEZJOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Shirley Palencia cries over the coffin of her 17-year-old sister, Kimberly Mishel Palencia Ortiz, who died in a fire at a state-run shelter, during the girl's funeral at the General Cementery in Guatemala City on March 17, 2017. Guatemala recoiled in anger and shock at the deaths of 40 teenage girls in a fire - 19 died immediately and the other 17 died in hospital of horrific burns - at a government-run shelter where staff have been accused of sexual abuse and other mistreatment. All the victims were aged between 14 and 17. So far 39 of them have been buried, while the last one remains in the morgue unidentified due to the severity of the burns. / AFP PHOTO / JOHAN ORDONEZJOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Students hold the names of 40 girls who perished in a fire at a children's shelter during a protest at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala in Guatemala City, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Authorities have said the fire that swept through parts of the institution on March 8 began when mattresses were set ablaze during a protest by residents protesting conditions at the overcrowded youth shelter. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
By Elisabeth Malkin / The New York Times
MEXICO CITY — The most severely disabled children were moved to an institution where 43 of them were housed together in one room. Many of the 130 children brought to a special education school had psychiatric and other problems, and the school’s staff quickly found itself overwhelmed.
And all the youngsters had just lived through a terrifying experience — a fire that killed 40 girls at the Virgen de la Asunción children’s home near Guatemala City.
Those were among the details in a report to be published last week by Disability Rights International, an advocacy organization in Washington whose representatives had gone on a scheduled trip to Guatemala to visit the home and other institutions when the disaster occurred March 8.
The rush to place children in new facilities after the fire put them at risk of suffering the same abuse they endured at the home, the report said, because the new institutions were unprepared to take them.
“These institutions are the last place you would want to put a child who survived trauma,” Matthew Mason, the clinical director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development and a member of Disability Rights International’s team, said in the report.
“These are the dumping grounds of society, for people who are not wanted by society, whether they are disabled or gay or happen to get there through the criminal justice system,” Eric Rosenthal, the organization’s executive director, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
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. Mr. 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.
Allegations that children and adolescents had been abused at Virgen de la Asunción had been public since 2013, when Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman declared that the residents’ rights were being systematically violated.
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.
Last Monday, the authorities arrested the former minister of social welfare, Carlos Rodas Mejía, the former deputy minister, Anahí Keller Zabala, and the home’s former director, Santos Torres Ramírez. They were charged with culpable homicide, negligence and child abuse. All three resigned or were dismissed after the fire.
Last week, Mr. Rosenthal and his team raced to keep track of the disabled residents who were moved out.
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 at the residential home, known as ABI, and “left to spend their days lying on mats, tied to metal doors, or belted into wheelchairs.”
The report continued: “Children are self-abusive, hitting themselves, poking themselves in the eyes, or regurgitating stomach fluids.”
At the special education school, Alida España de Arana, the teachers reported that the children from Virgen de la Asunción were “shouting, screaming and hitting each other,” and with few resources and no medical records, they had little choice but to medicate them.