Preventing Child Abuse in Institutions

Robert Martin, CRPD Committee Member, talks institutionalistion, ill-treatment and human rights

Robert Martin, CRPD Committe MemberRobert Martin, CRPD Committe Member

Earlier this month, MDAC published a first-of-its-kind monitoring methodology for identifying and preventing abuse of children with mental disabilities in institutions - the CHARM Toolkit. The Toolkit was the product of a two-year, EC-funded project carried out together with our partners, GIP-Sofia in Bulgaria, the League of Human Rights (LIGA) in the Czech Republic, and the Ann Craft Trust in England. It has seven distinct guides, handbooks and other materials and is accompanied by a report detailing findings in 30 institutions in four countries. You can find all of these publications here.

As part of this project, CRPD Committee Member, Robert Martin wrote a powerful and eloquent prologue to the Findings Report on the monitoring visits. It is a damning critique of the system of isolating and segregating children with mental disabilities in institutions. He details his own experiences growing up in institutions and makes a potent call for Article 19 of the CRPD and the right to live in the community to be made real across the world. We share this prologue here as a stand-alone statement.


I often wondered why I ended up in the places I did just because I was born with a disability. I was put in a large institution when I was just a baby. I was put in lots of different institutions. I wanted to be loved. I cried for my family, I wanted them to take me home. But they did not come and take me away from the institutions. So in the end, I gave up crying for them.

I didn’t get any love at the institutions. My life in institutions meant I personally had nothing and no one to call my own. I adopted cats and made them my friends but then was moved and lost that friend. My attachments meant nothing to others. Children raised in institutions learn that good times don’t last, and people and pets come and go. The result of this is very negative. We can struggle with how to relate to people.

I have lived in places where there was no privacy and nothing to do. People stayed in their pyjamas all day, rocking backwards and forth. We were not given our own clothes but had to share a pool of clothes and grab what we could get. We were even colour-coded in groups and had stars and labels and categories. We all had the same haircuts, on the same day.  We were not treated as individuals. In fact, people said we all looked the same.

There was violence, neglect and abuse everywhere you looked. People were hosed down, left in their dirty clothes, put in isolation and had things taken off them.  Seeing and having to deal with abuse was really hard.  No person should have to live like that.

I learnt not to trust people and to just try and survive as best I could. I became defensive and on guard all the time just to keep away from violence and abuse. The violence and abuse that was happening around us also taught us that it was okay to behave like that. We got in trouble for our behaviour, but the staff didn’t. People with power over other people are easily corrupted, and behind closed doors the human rights of others are often violated.   

Living in an institution taught me that I was a nobody – that my life didn’t really matter. Many of my friends lived with me in the institutions, and many died there. Their names are not on any graves. 

Living in an institution, I realised that I was actually being punished for who I was.

Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is about living independently and being included in the community. All people, including those with the highest support needs, have the right to grow up in a family and live in the community and I believe, leave behind our mark on a community where we belong.  Communities are better places because of what they learn from disabled people. Communities need us.

I want to see the rights in Article 19 made real across the world.

People in institutions are denied their human rights and a proper life. The right to education, the right to participate, the right to live free from violence and the right to life are all things at risk in an institution. 

I believe institutions are things from yesterday’s world and we should not have them anymore.


Robert Martin (MNZM – Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Independent expert, United Nations CRPD Committee

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