SERBIA: Torment not Treatment: Serbia’s Segregation and Abuse of Children and Adults with Disabilities

[BELGRADE, 15 November 2007] - An disability rights NGO has accused Serbia of the chronic neglect and abuse of children and adults with mental disabilities living in state institutions across the country.

In a report entitled "Torment not Treatment: Serbia's segregation and abuse of children and adults with disabilities", Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) outlined the results of a four-year investigation into conditions within Serbia's mental institutions.

"Filthy conditions, contagious diseases, lack of medical care and rehabilitation and a failure to provide oversight renders placement in a Serbian institution life-threatening for both adults and children," the report said.

Investigators found children and adults "tied to beds or never allowed to leave their cribs - some for years at a time," the report says after examining the living conditions of more than 17,000 people with disabilities.

"Children and adults with disabilities tied down and restrained over a lifetime are being subjected to extremely dangerous and painful treatment ... that is tantamount to torture," it said.

MDRI executive director Eric Rosenthal said the aim was not "to single out Serbia" but to press the authorities to take action to integrate the disabled into the community.

While visiting one of six institutions covered in the report, activist Laurie Ahren said she was "most disturbed" by the case of a 21-year-old man who has been institutionalised for 11 years.

"I asked the nurse how often he was taken out of the crib and she said 'never, he has never left the crib in 11 years'," Ahren told reporters.

Tied down to prevent self-harm

Activists showed pictures of a young girl who had tried to gouge out her eyes who was later tied to the bars of the cot. Hospital staff told them the move was to "prevent (patients) from harming themselves".

Serbian Health Minister Tomica Milosavljevic told AFP he had not been informed about the MDRI investigation nor about the report itself.

"This report is a one-sided view presented with a wish ... to reach a certain political goal and not to define the problem and point to a solution," Milosavljevic said in a telephone interview.

The Serbian government has prepared a "strategy for preserving mental health and a draft on rights of people with mental disabilities," he said, adding that it would soon be sent to the parliament for adoption.

He denied that the government had turned a blind eye to the situation in Serbia's hospitals and institutions for the disabled.

"Improvement of this situation and adoption of ... new standards is a strenuous, but ongoing work," Milosavljevic said.

Rosenthal said MDRI recommended that several mental institutions in Serbia be closed and their patients be allowed access to education, employment, decent and safe housing, friends and family, based on their disability.

Although the report praised "numerous model programs" established to provide support to people with disabilities in the community, it said Serbia lacked "enforceable laws" to regulate the treatment of those suffering from mental disabilities.

"It is our hope that this report will support the national replication of these programs to ensure that everyone with a disability has an opportunity for a full life in the community," the report concluded.

Since 2000, when strongman Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power, Serbia's authorities have tried to improve the healthcare system and living conditions in hospitals and institutions after years of mismanagement and a lack of financial support.

However, in a country with an average monthly salary of about 300 euros (190 dollars) most of the improvements have been based on foreign and individual donations.

MDRI activists said the report would be sent to the European Union, the United Nations and a number of international human right organisations.

Last week, Serbia signed a Stabilisation and Association Accord with the EU, the first step towards membership of the bloc.

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