Bulgaria responsible for death of 15 disabled children and adults

In a judgment published this week (Nencheva v. Bulgaria, judgment of June 18), the European Court of Human Rights held the Bulgarian government responsible for the death of 15 children and young adults who died in an institution during the winter of 1996/97. The youngest was four and a half, the oldest 22. Mitko Durov, one of the victims, was five when he was placed in the institution in 1995. At the beginning of 1996 he weighed 12kg, and lost half of his body weight by the end of that year, dying of unknown causes days after his sixth birthday in January 1997. Maria Sofronieva, another victim, died in December 1996 at the age of 18. Years of malnutrition and lack of care meant that she was 115cm and 18kg when she died.

The Dzhurkovo institution (now closed) was situated in Rhodopes. The closest village was 15km away, down a mountain road and the closest hospital was 40km away. During the winter of 1996/97 Bulgaria went through a severe financial crisis. High inflation meant that the budget for the institution, which was set by the State government, came out to only 80 Euro cents per child per day. The food was scarce. As there was no fuel for heating, the building was heated by several electric radiators held in corridors, with the doors open. Temperatures in the rooms varied from 12 to 15 degrees Celsius.

The institution’s director was aware of the risk for the lives of children in such circumstances. She wrote to several government agencies, alerting them to her concern that the residents would not survive without food and fuel. She tried to get hold of anything to feed the residents and provide them warmth, at one point appealing for help on a radio station. In February 1997, after seven residents had died, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy transferred the equivalent of just over 3,700 Euros to the institution.

In 2005 the prosecutor filed charges against three people, including the director, accusing them of criminal negligence. In 2007 a court acquitted them, stating, among other things, that the only people who could complain were the parents of two of the children, given that only these parents visited their children in the institution, while the parents of other residents did not. The court put the ultimate responsibility for the deaths on the State government; the State claimed it could not identify the responsible parties due to the time lapse from the date of the events, during which any files related to them had been destroyed.


Deaths at the hand of the State

In its judgment the European Court of Human Rights emphasised that the death of the residents was not a result of a sudden and unforeseen event. On the contrary, fifteen children and young adults died gradually over the course of three months, after the authorities had been put on notice of the pending fatalities. Failure to do everything in their power to prevent the deaths constituted a violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which sets out the right to life.

These deaths are, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) has published a report, following monitoring supported by MDAC according to which in the period from 1997 to 2010, 238 children died in Bulgarian institutions for children. The BHC has also filed a case about the death of a girl in an institution in 2006. In the case of Lazarov v. Bulgaria, pending before the European Court, MDAC is representing the family of a woman who was found dead several days after she left a social care institution; the institution’s delay in informing either the police or the family about her disappearance resulted in precious time being lost in searching for her. No-one was held responsible for any of the events leading to her death. MDAC is also representing the parents of a young man who died in a psychiatric hospital after physical and chemical restraints were applied in the case of Vakarelski v. Bulgaria, also pending before the European Court.

MDAC’s litigation and advocacy efforts in Bulgaria, most notably the cases of MDAC v. Bulgaria before the European Social Rights Committee in 2008 and Stanev v. Bulgaria before the European Court in 2012 have highlighted the systemic violations of the rights of children and adults in Bulgarian institutions. In the former case MDAC addressed the failure of the Bulgarian authorities to provide any education to children with intellectual disabilities placed in social care homes. The European Social Rights Committee found a violation of the right of children in institutions to education and established that such a practice was discriminatory. The Stanev case addressed the issue of ill-treatment of an adult in a social care institution.

Widespread neglect

Together, all of these cases provide the evidence of a widespread situation of neglect of people with intellectual disabilities, and psycho-social (mental health) disabilities – both children and adults. Once they enter a State institution they will face a lifetime of neglect and abuse – and many people will suffer an early death. Parents of children with disabilities are often forced by the lack of community support services to surrender their child to an institution. These institutions are usually located far away from cities, and at times can be hundreds of kilometers away from the person’s home, making maintenance of family relations difficult if not impossible. Once placed in an institution, a child (if she survives) will be transferred often as a matter of course to an institution for adults.

Moratorium on new admissions

It need not be so. MDAC takes this opportunity to call on the Bulgarian government to establish a moratorium on new admissions to institutions for any child or adult with an actual or perceived disability. When someone dies in an institution, the bed should be destroyed. This should force the local government to develop a community-based alternative for the next person on the waiting list. In 2010, the Bulgarian government laid out a 15-year plan to close all children’s institutions but without adequate funding committed to develop necessary services and alternatives in the communiy. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on the government of Bulgaria to “urgently take action to close all children’s institutions, accompanied by practical alternatives to institutionalization, sufficient funds to create and maintain a sustainable system of care … [and] establish a monitoring procedure to assess the implementation and results of the plan of action…”

MDAC calls on the government to fully implement Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it ratified last year. This provision sets out the right for each person with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others.  A failure to do this will only result in more cases being brought against the Bulgarian government. These cases demonstrate in horrific detail the callous disregard by the Bulgarian government for the lives and rights of children and adults with disabilities. 

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