Last Monday, a 7-year-old boy with an intellectual disability died in a Russian orphanage after a health worker used cloth diapers to tie him to his bed. A preliminary account stated that the boy may have choked on his own vomit and that being tied down stopped him from rolling over to breathe. The boy’s government medical forms allegedly recommended that staff use physical restraints as treatment for hyperactivity. Following the incident, Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, urged the government to investigate the death and called for Russia to ban the practice of tying children up, noting that other children have died in similar circumstances.  

In 2012 and 2013, I visited 10 orphanages across Russia where children with various disabilities live. I met dozens of children who had their heads, arms, or torsos bound by rags or clothing to cribs or wheelchairs. Most of the children stared listlessly, and many rocked back and forth. The overwhelmed and undertrained staff said that they restrained children to prevent them from knocking their heads against cribs or walls, climbing out of their cribs and injuring themselves, or attempting to escape their rooms or the institutions.

In one orphanage, I met a thin 14 year-old girl named “Lyuda,” with cerebral palsy, who was tied to a wheelchair by the arms and torso. A volunteer explained the use of restraint: “We tie her up to prevent her from running away. We didn’t want her to get beaten up by the staff as punishment. But now she has forgotten how to walk.”

In 2014, the UN’s expert on torture stated that “there can be no therapeutic justification” for the use of restraint on people with psychological or developmental disabilities, and that the practice may constitute torture. A Moscow-based pediatrician specializing in the health of institutionalized children put it simply:  “For a child to be able to grow, he needs to be able to move around.” Use of restraints, coupled with lack of stimulation, was a source of “chronic stress,” she said.

Astakhov’s call for a ban on restraint in Russian orphanages is welcome, but it is long overdue, and it was overdue well before this boy died. Because beyond this death, the everyday tragedy is that many children in institutions throughout Russia are subjected to the very same inhuman treatment of being tied up, which denies them even the most basic conditions to grow and develop.