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People & Power

Europe's hidden shame

An undercover investigation reveals disturbing evidence about the abuse of disabled people in Romania.

Last updated: 17 Apr 2014 12:00
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Romania has been a member of the European Union since 2007. It says it’s committed to the care of some of its most vulnerable citizens – disabled people. 

But People & Power has uncovered highly disturbing evidence about systematic abuse in the country’s state institutions.

How do the state authorities explain this – and why has the EU spent millions of Euros refurbishing and modernizing state centres for the disabled?

Filmmaker's view 

By Sarah Spiller

I’d been warned what to expect, but nothing prepared me.

In a residential centre for disabled people, 10 women were sharing a squalid room reeking of urine. Two residents began crying. They said they’d been "punished" by staff, beaten because they’d refused to have their heads shaved.

At a centre for 'recuperation and rehabilitation', disabled residents were too afraid to speak inside. But outside, they complained of violence and abuse -- and they pleaded for help.


I’d come to Romania in winter, 2013, to learn more about the supposed progress the country has made when it came to the treatment of some of its most vulnerable citizens -- the thousands of disabled people in residential state care.

Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, the country has ratified a key United Nations treaty affirming the rights of people with disabilities. It’s announced a "national strategy" to promote the rights and dignity of all disabled people. And the Romanian constitution has stipulated that the disabled should have "special protection".

But what I was seeing seemed utterly at odds with these public declarations.

Nearly 25 years since the downfall of Communism here, for some in this country’s notorious institutions, time has appeared to have stood still.

 Undercover

We returned to Romania, undercover, in the spring. One of our first meetings, on the outskirts of Romania’s capital Bucharest. A contact wanted to show us images of life inside Romanian institutions. We were shown film, taken secretly inside centres all around the country, over the last two years.

The footage was deeply disturbing.

At an institution in central Romania for over 200 adults, disabled residents lay seemingly motionless in over-crowded rooms. Down one corridor, was a room known as an "isolator," a place where apparently the most ill people were placed.

A man was asked if people had died there.

“Many,” he replied. “That’s how it is.”

Then there were the allegations of assault. At a centre for "recuperation and rehabilitation", disabled residents were too afraid to speak inside. But outside, they complained of violence and abuse -- and they pleaded for help.

"They sedate us and shave our heads," cried one resident. "The staff beat us. It's very bad in here. Please help me -- please."

Back in the city centre, down a quiet side street, we visited a charity that’s been monitoring conditions inside Romania’s institutions for the disabled since 2003.

Georgiana Pascu of the Centre for Legal Resources told us that human rights violations had got worse in the 10 years they’d been visiting state centres.

"These abuses will continue," she told us. "This is our perspective at 10 years monitoring these institutions. They will not stop."

The evidence we were gathering suggested serious failings in state institutions for disabled people.

Then we discovered what appeared to be a new initiative on the part of state authorities: A plan to enlist the private sector to look after disabled people.

Inspectors found some of the worst conditions in the centre outside Bucharest, where 10 women shared one room. Weeks after the government’s findings, a disabled man was seen wandering half-naked in the grounds. When we visited undercover, residents were continuing to live in overcrowded conditions – and complaining of assault.

A document on the Internet outlined how residents at a state institution in Bucharest would be transferred to a private centre in the countryside. Further research suggested state officials were prepared to pay around 600 Euros, per person, per month, for people’s care there.

On the Internet, too, was a promotional film for the private institution, the "Alexandru Ioan Cuza Foundation". It offered comfortable, modern facilities and good care for residents.

When we visited this place undercover, the reality could not have been more different.

The centre for over 50 disabled people was in an isolated village in the county of Buzau.

At first sight, the place seemed clean, clinical even. But behind the barred windows of an "orange pavilion" we found young people sedated and distressed.

On either side of a corridor were locked doors. Behind one door were six youngsters in three beds. Their heads had been shaved, and their jumpers tied at the sleeves. Some seemed thin and malnourished.

"They are people with disabilities," a staff member informed us. "At the doctor’s recommendation, they’re tied up for periods of time. They suffer from autism. They eat from the bin."

She gestured to one young woman sitting rocking on a bed. "If you want to see, we can untie her. She will go straight to the bin and eat everything she finds."

We saw another locked door. Staff said this was a "seclusion room", and at first they denied there was anybody in there. But when they turned the key, inside was a young man. He was concealed under the covers and appeared to be shaking. He’d had an epileptic seizure. He’d apparently been locked in without any medical supervision.

A hidden report

This was a private centre – but what, we wondered, did the authorities know about conditions inside their own state institutions?

Quite a lot, we discovered.

In fact, the authorities here had carried out inspections into scores of centres for "rehabilitation and recuperation" last summer.

Their findings: disabled residents were not fed or clothed adequately. Staff didn’t respect guidelines to protect vulnerable people from abuse and neglect. In numerous institutions, there were few activities and therapies.

But this report was kept quiet. It didn’t appear on the government’s website. It was only when the charity the Centre for Legal Resources found out about these inspections that the report came to light.

Even then, we discovered that for some, months after the inspectors' visits, little had improved.

Inspectors found some of the worst conditions in the centre outside Bucharest, where 10 women shared one room. Weeks after the government’s findings, a disabled man was seen wandering half-naked in the grounds. When we visited undercover, residents were continuing to live in overcrowded conditions – and complaining of assault.

Armed with the government report and with our evidence from institutions all over the country, we went to Romania’s ministry of labour, responsible for people with disabilities. What did it make of the suggestion that the abuse of disabled people in this country had got worse over the past decade – since Romania joined the EU?

The ministry's Sec. of State Codrin Scutaru told us he was "outraged". He made a flurry of promises. He would find out more about what was happening. He'd publish the government report.

Then Sec. Scutaru suddenly came up with a new policy on the spot: He’d send government inspectors into institutions for disabled people, all over Romania, to gather complaints.

"This idea came to me today," he told us. "By talking to you. Thanks to you. You gave me the idea today."

But whilst all this seemed positive, welcome even, walking away from the labour ministry and past EU flags proudly fluttering over official buildings, we had one more question about Romania's care for the disabled that went beyond this EU member state.

Links for more information

EU millions

Since 2007, when Romania joined the EU, the country has received millions of Euros in EU aid to help people with disabilities live independently in their communities.

So how well has that money been spent?

We visited a think-tank in Bucharest that’s carried out painstaking research into where EU funds have gone. It’s discovered that nearly 30 million Euros that could have been spent on helping disabled people live independent lives, has instead been spent on renovating over 50 state institutions for people with disabilities.

"What EU money could have done was to try and give people a chance to live in the community," said Elena Tudose from the Institute for Public Policy. "Romania has used the money in the very opposite sense. We've used the money for changing the windows, painting the walls."

Of even more concern were reports we'd heard that some of the EU money may have gone into institutions where there were allegations of abuse. We'd heard about one such centre in the county of Giurgiu called Tantava, modernized using EU aid of over half a million Euros.

Romania not alone

Dr. Cerasela Predescu’s charity, Pro-Act, helps disabled people move out of institutions to live independent lives in the community. She took us to one of the charity's community houses in Giurgiu.

Over home-made cakes, we met former residents of Tantava who told us their lives have been transformed since they left the state centre. They were able to look for work, to enjoy the most basic freedoms, and to look towards the future. With considerable courage, they also told us about the Tantava centre, and the violence and abuse they said disabled residents suffered, even as money poured in from Brussels.

"People were left to be tied up. To be beaten or injected, or medicated, claiming the doctor said so," one former resident said. "I want all institutions, all centres, closed."

"We can’t shut our eyes, knowing that people are not respected," Dr. Predescu told us. "The fact is they put money into Tantava and other institutions like Tantava. As long as they do that, nothing changes."

'Rome not built in a day'

During our research, we'd discovered that Romania wasn't the only member state to have used millions of Euros in EU funding to renovate state institutions for the disabled.

A disability charity in the UK has uncovered evidence suggesting that around 150 million Euros in EU funding has been spent on modernizing state institutions for disabled people in Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, and Slovakia.

Given EU policy about disabled people living independent lives, had something gone wrong?

At an EU office looking out on the Brussels skyline, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn considered the question: "To be honest," he said, 'Rome was also not built in one day.'

When it came to money given to member states for the disabled, the EU said it has had to improve living conditions first.

"It’s apparently not possible to resolve the problem so fast that all the people can be getting out of institutions." In the future, he said, they will impose tougher conditions about how EU funding is used.

But was the commissioner concerned that EU money has gone into institutions in Romania, where there may have been human rights abuses?

His department, he said, was not aware of this. If there was evidence he said he would certainly follow up on it. 

We gave the commissioner a list of over 50 state institutions that received EU money. Would he look into whether there had been human rights abuses at these centres for disabled people?

He said he would.

A few days later an EU official got in touch with us. They'd asked the Romanian authorities to look into conditions inside the EU-funded Tantava institution.

Then, a week before our programme was due to air, an EU official appeared on Romanian TV and said that in the future, EU funds would be put into helping disabled people live independently, rather than renovating Romanian state institutions.

Back in Romania, there appeared to be movement, too.

Local inspectors had visited the private centre in the county of Buzau – the place where young disabled people had been tied up behind locked doors. Sec. Scutaru emailed us with their findings. Officials had found no "specific procedure" for the restraint and isolation of residents.

And more news from an official in Bucharest. Disabled youngsters at this private home were to be moved again.

To another Romanian state institution.

People & Power   can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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