“My child’s nightmare lasted around a year and a half. She was beaten and locked in a caged bed, sometimes for the entire day or even two days.”
This is how a mother described the ordeal her daughter Kasia (pseudonym) went through in a residential institution for girls and women with intellectual disabilities in Jordanów, a small town in southern Poland. Having entered two months before her 18th birthday, when Kasia was removed from the institution almost two years later, her family said she was barely able to speak or walk, a side effect of medication she was given.
According to a report by the Polish news website Wirtualna Polska, many women and girls experienced abuse and neglect in this institution, which at the time of the report was run by a Catholic nuns’ order, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and had 47 residents. Girls as young as 13 and women with disabilities were beaten with a mop, kicked, left outside in the cold without shoes as punishment, insulted, and humiliated. The abuses came to light after former staff members and parents spoke out.
Abuses in institutions like this are not isolated cases. Human Rights Watch has documented neglect and abuses in residential institutions for people with disabilities around the world, including in Armenia, Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Serbia. In more than 60 countries, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children with disabilities, some as young as 10, have been shackled – chained, tied, or locked up in confined spaces – simply because they have a disability.
Local authorities have initiated an investigation into the alleged violations in the Jordanów institution and, while the investigation is ongoing, have entrusted the management to a different provider.
While this response is welcome, more needs to be done to end the practice of people with disabilities being warehoused in Polish institutions. Poland, which is one of the 185 states that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, should develop a time-bound plan to progressively close institutions and invest in community-based services that support people to live independently in their communities.
The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as the broader Catholic Church, should monitor all residential institutions under its authority to ensure people with disabilities are not shackled, beaten, or suffering any other form of abuse, and provide disability rights training to its institutional staff.
“I’m sure that there are many more places like this, that many children are suffering like this, but no one shows any interest. These children are screaming behind closed doors,” Kasia’s mother said. It’s high time that governments, including Poland’s, hear these screams, move away from a system of isolation and abuse, and build a system of support and independence.