My fight by JK Rowling
JK Rowling, Sunday Times, 5 February 2006
The author reveals how her deepest fear triggered her campaign to save caged children in eastern Europe
“You asked me once,” said O'Brien, “what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world . . .
“The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”
— George Orwell, 1984
My eldest daughter keeps a pair of rats and I'm quite happy to let them sit on my shoulder while she cleans them out; snakes have never bothered me and, while I don't much like spiders, I could hold a tarantula if I had to. For me the worst thing in the world, the one unendurable terror, the thing that I cannot even imagine without an accelerating pulse and a compulsion to stand up and move fast in any direction, is incarceration in a very small space.
This does not explain why the photograph that appeared in The Sunday Times in June 2004 had such a profound effect on me, because at first glance all I saw was the distorted face of a little boy staring through wire mesh. He looked deeply distressed, as though he was screaming. I don't think that I realised, even subliminally, that he was caged. All I felt was an immediate, instinctive revulsion towards the image, and I had half-turned the page before shame stopped me.
“If you read the piece and it's as bad as the picture,” I thought, “then you've got to do something about it.” And so I turned back, I read Justin Sparks's article, and it was all my worst things in the world.
The boy in the photograph's name was Vasek Knotek. He was around five years old (his carers were not sure) and had lived in the Raby “care home” near Prague since he had been a baby. Mentally handicapped, he was let out of the cage once a day so that it could be cleaned, then returned to it. His only human contact was nappy changes and washes.
Vasek lived in the basement of the three-floor institution, and Sparks 's description of it made George Orwell's Room 101 sound like a soft play centre:
“The basement is somewhere nobody would choose to live. From the ground floor, where residents wander the corridors aimlessly, it is approached by a flight of stairs. Those who descend are confronted first by the stench of excrement and bleach, then by the paralysing sight of a human menagerie.
“There are three children in separate cages in the first room. A tall boy of 15 called Pavel stands up and stretches his hands through the bars in an effort to touch anyone coming towards him. Next to him is another teenage boy, rocking backwards and forwards and occasionally clutching the bars of his cage. Opposite is Martin, a vulnerable-looking boy of about nine, who moves inquisitively to the front of his cage if someone is near. There are few novelties and hardly any visitors for the 19 residents of the basement.
“The older boys make less fuss about the daily 11am lock-up, as if they are conditioned to the routine. It is the younger ones who resist, struggle and protest. Vasek shakes the iron frame with all the force he can muster and tears at the wire mesh that confines him. His screams of anger ring through the building. In an adjacent cage his friend Michal puts his hands over his ears to shut out the noise and bursts into tears.”
I tore out the article, frightened of losing it even though it was the most disturbing thing I had ever read. The following day I photocopied the page 50 times and started writing letters.
Given what I know now, my initial burst of determination to “do something” might have been tempered by a good dose of pessimism. While I have read many briefing papers and reports from advocacy bodies, I have barely penetrated the vast, dark pit of a problem into which Sparks 's article shone a torch.
The number of children living in European institutions like the Raby home is huge. Mentally and physically handicapped children are over-represented, but there are also thousands upon thousands of healthy children growing up without their parents in large institutions and they, too, are vulnerable to neglect and abuse.
In the Czech Republic , 6% of all children under three are institutionalised (the highest proportion in Europe , higher than central Asia ). Across Europe there are estimated to be 23,000 children under three in residential institutions variously called “care homes”, “placement centres” or — the Western press's favourite, because it fits neatly into headlines — “orphanages”. Yet only 6% of the children currently living in these institutions are actually parentless. Vasek Knotek's parents live less than a mile away from the care home where he is caged.
The letters I fired off in all directions back in June 2004 had one swift result. After I bombarded Scottish MEPs, the Czech ambassador to Britain, the Czech prime minister and president and as many other people as I thought might have some clout in the matter of cage beds, it was announced that the (then) Czech health minister had sent a letter to hospital directors asking them to end cage bed use by the end of 2004.
A few British newspapers reported that my letters had brought about the abolition of cage beds. I knew this was a bad joke. I doubted that a single cage bed had been scrapped, and the Hungarian-based Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC) agreed. They say that the hundreds of cage beds in the Czech Republic are fully occupied to this day, “used arbitrarily and without any legal regulations”. There was never even a pretence that the use of cage beds in Slovakia , Slovenia and Hungary was not continuing unabated.
So much for “JK frees caged children”. However, my burst of letter writing had another result, this time a meaningful one. I made contact with Emma Nicholson, the baroness and MEP, who has made the de-institutionalisation of children her life's mission.
Emma had previously set up a charity in Romania that had helped drive the revolutionary change in that country's child welfare system, where children's homes under the Ceaucescu dictatorship were, in her words, “like Hieronymus Bosch's vision of hell”. Now she wanted me to join her in creating a new campaigning charity, modelled upon the earlier one but with a much wider scope. This time we would be seeking to promote and protect children's rights throughout Europe .
I went for a long walk with my husband after my meeting with Emma. Neil had only recently lectured me about keeping my commitments manageable. I was pregnant, I had a 10-year-old and a toddler, I was writing a novel for which rather a lot of people were waiting impatiently, and I already had several other charitable commitments. So I was a little nervous about telling him what I had just agreed to do.
Neil is a GP who worked for a time in Edinburgh 's largest psychiatric hospital. I finished my justification by talking about toddlers in cage beds. When I had babbled myself to a standstill he simply said, “Yes, you've got to do this.”
Late last month I flew to Bucharest for two days for the launch of the Children's High Level Group. Everybody's life throws up a bit of clumsy symbolism now and then: I had to stop breastfeeding my nearly one-year-old daughter a bit earlier than I had intended before leaving for the trip. The severing of that last tie to Mackenzie's true babyhood, and the prospect of my longest ever separation from her and her two-year-old brother, felt like an ominous softening up for the business ahead.
We launched the Children's High Level Group in Romania because it is the eastern European state that was prepared to admit that it had a problem with institutionalised children and opened its doors to external agencies that wanted to help. There is still much work to do there — more than 30,000 children remain in care — yet when you look at how far Romania has come it is hard not to concede that a minor miracle has been achieved.
In Bucharest I met up with Emma and the other founding members of the Children's High Level Group: Muir John Potter (a director of Christ's hospital and personal adviser to the Romanian prime minister on children's rights, health, education and protection) and Professor Kevin Browne (director of the centre for forensic and family psychology at Birmingham University and a World Health Organisation consultant).
Both men's temples positively bulge with knowledge about child protection, so I couldn't help reflecting that either one of them would do a better job at the press conference into which I was ushered a bare hour after my arrival. However, I had been drafted in partly for my awareness-raising abilities, and raise awareness I must therefore do.
Accompanied by the prime minister, we set off to meet a large group of teenagers who were prepared to talk a little about their experiences within Romania 's residential homes.
These were, it must be said, exceptional children: all had won prizes in various categories of the national Edelweiss competition, which is open to institutionalised children and offers scholarships to the award winners. Categories include literature, music, sport, humanities and drama. The underlying intention of Edelweiss is to give the children the incentive to better themselves, and to broaden their horizons. It is also to show the Romanian public the faces and talents of some of the thousands of children shut away in care homes.
There were 50 of them waiting for me in a long room. Nearly all had known child welfare under Ceaucescu. Many of them spoke good English. As I sat down at the head of the table and looked at the faces beaming back at me, I felt the shadowy presence of their parents, many of whom will still have no idea what became of the children they gave over to the state.
One by one they told their stories. Our time was brief and they concentrated mainly on the positive, on taking part in the Edelweiss competition, on what it had meant to them to win. A beautiful blonde girl played the clarinet for us, then talked of entering a children's home at the age of 10. She had asked her mother to take her there; her father had died and the family was facing starvation.
Then a boy halfway along the table spoke up. I had noticed him the moment I had sat down, because he bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my favourite ex-pupils in Portugal , where I taught English. He had been taken to a care home as a baby. Last year he had left and gone looking for his biological mother. They were reunited in July; he also met, for the first time, his two sisters, one of whom is disabled. Two months later his mother died.
“And how did you feel about that?” asked the woman organising the speakers. She seemed a very nice woman, and perhaps she had warned him she was going to ask him that question, but I wished she had not. He replied, with a dignity I found breathtaking: “Nobody who has not lived through that experience can know how it feels.”
The only complaint they voiced in front of their prime minister was that the assistants in the institutions were simply overwhelmed by the numbers of their charges; it was impossible for them to give individual children the affection they needed and craved. The one exception was the blonde clarinettist who told us, speaking very quietly, that she had received great help and support in her care home. This was a salutary reminder that these institutions are as good — or bad — as their worst worker.
The prime minister left and the atmosphere became a good deal less formal. I was surrounded by teenagers, pressing in, laughing. A handsome, punky boy who looked as though he had been operated on for cleft palate, asked me to sign his friend's Harry Potter book. A girl pressed to the front of the crowd.
“Please,” she said, “please — who is RAB?” (an as-yet unexplained mystery in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Everyone laughed. I laughed, but a little shakily. Their apparent normality was almost unbearably touching, whatever lay beneath.
The boy who had lost his mother two months after finding her presented me with the painting that had won him the art section of the Edelweiss competition. It is propped against the wall in my study as I type this. A female figure lies prone, legs akimbo as though for childbirth. A distorted skull slides to the floor where the woman's head should be. A dismembered, knife-wielding hand hovers above her. The baby, if there was a baby, is not present.
And then I was taken off to visit a maternity hospital.
Most children in residential institutions in eastern Europe are there because they have been abandoned, although a significant proportion are also “social orphans”, placed in care because of family illness or incapacity. But poverty remains a major trigger for leaving children to be reared by the state: Ceaucescu's policies ensured that the only thing plentifully produced in Romania were babies. Even now, the minimum wage in Romania is roughly equivalent to £70 a month, a figure that has considerable resonance for me, who once lived with my daughter on £70 a week and considered myself poor.
All of these factors have led to a wide cultural acceptance, even encouragement, of abandonment, particularly in the cases of children with mental and physical handicaps.
After a whistle-stop tour of the maternity hospital, during which I muttered incomprehensible apologies to a long line of heavily pregnant women who were clearly wondering who the hell the foreigners were, I was shown into a small ward containing half a dozen abandoned babies.
Everything in here was spotless, including the babies, and they all looked physically well. And yet there was something not quite right. I have had three children and I know what normal development looks like. These babies, ranging in age from one to nine months, were strangely quiet and passive. They did not react to the people suddenly bending over them, either as potential sources of interest or fun, or as invaders of their secure environment.
I approached a baby girl I judged to be three months old; she was very small, lying on her tummy and just able to support her head.
“She's five months, look,” said Kevin, pointing at the date of birth on the sign over her cot. I tickled her cheek with a finger; she continued to gaze ahead; I might have been a bed rail or a blanket. I talked to her, she showed no flicker of interest, I even wondered whether she was deaf. But then, as I was about to move away, she looked around, focused on me in that endearingly drunken way small babies have and gave a sudden and unexpected smile that made me feel as though I had a hard boiled egg lodged in my throat.
“That was one of the best units I've seen,” muttered Kevin in my ear as we left the room. “Did you hear? One of them was crying when we went in. So they've learnt that their needs will be met if they show distress.”
Kevin has seen those babies whose alarm system has been set permanently to mute: nobody responded, so they stopped behaving as babies are designed to behave when they are hungry, cold and wet. Continual neglect leads to permanently impaired brain function. All research in this area has shown that putting babies into care means deterioration in brain development, attachment disorders and developmental delay. The babies I saw were already showing the first signs of institutionalisation. The aim now is to move them into foster care as quickly as possible, and thence to adoption.
The ideal, of course, is to prevent abandonment in the first place. At a meeting with the prime minister and the minister of health immediately after our visit to the maternity hospital, Emma urged a new range of measures upon the Romanian government, some of which have already been agreed.
An extra 4,000 community nurses are to be hired and trained, 2,000 of them dedicated to maternal services. If possible, they will be equipped with cheap sonic devices to enable pregnant mothers to hear the baby's heartbeat, which is a great aid to prenatal bonding with the baby. Perhaps most crucially of all, the government is being urged to place a social worker in every maternity hospital to identify those mothers at risk of abandoning their babies and offer them the support they need.
We changed very quickly for a gala fundraising dinner in aid of the Children's High Level Group. Touchingly, much was made during the auction of the fact that this time Romania was giving help as well as receiving it. Ille Nastase took to the stage to show off the racquet he had donated to be auctioned; in the process of taking off the press he broke half the strings. It still raised €11,000 (£7,500) though. And the following morning, we heard that the evening had raised a total of a €180,000 (£123,000), all of which went directly to the new charity.
We met the Czech ambassador to Romania the next day. We had barely 10 minutes in which to discuss the Czech Republic 's high level of child institutionalisation and their use of cage beds for mentally handicapped children. I wondered which of the arguments favoured by apologists for cage beds he might use, but he kicked off by reminding us the Czech Republic is not the only country using cage beds — no justification at all.
I expressed my shock that the Czech Republic , which has elevated human rights norms to higher law status, is continuing to use a method of restraint that, according to the MDAC, constitutes “a breach of international human rights law and standards related to the prevention of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The ambassador listened politely, then turned to me and invited the Children's High Level Group to the Czech Republic to discuss the matter. This was a breakthrough we had not expected, and I accepted with alacrity. Then he asked me to sign a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone for his daughter.
For me, cage beds represent an extreme of the dehumanisation of children in institutions, but, as I now understand, they are not by any means the worst of the abuses such children may suffer.
When young children are cut adrift from their biological mothers they become much more vulnerable to an existence barely worth living. The UN estimates that the number of children trafficked annually, internally and externally, is around 1.2m. Some of these rootless children may be adopted, but others are sold into prostitution or domestic labour.
Romania 's response to this danger was to declare a moratorium on inter-country adoptions in 2001, a ban that the government is under almost daily pressure to reverse from powerful pro-adoption lobbies abroad. The latter insist that institutionalised children need the families they are offering. The Romanian government says it is not prepared to pay the price of children ending up in the hands of traffickers. It is an issue around which tempers flare like grenades.
The rights of the huge numbers of children in residential institutions have been clearly defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by all member states except Somalia and America ), but every day in Europe the convention is being broken many thousands of times. If truly enforced, it would mean an end to medieval practices such as cage beds and a much more focused and determined effort to keep children out of residential institutions.
One of my first thoughts, when I finished reading that initial article by Justin Sparks, was “why didn't I know about this? How could I not know about it?” I had momentarily forgotten that human suffering, however dreadful and on however wide a scale, will always go ignored and unheard unless somebody is prepared to shout about it, and others are ready to act. It is phenomenally easy both to hide and to silence children once separated from their families. They are small and portable, their language skills aren't great, they don't have lawyers and they aren't registered to vote. Abandoned, neglected, caged or trafficked, these children were intended by nature to be protected by their parents. Now it is somebody else's job — partly, mine.
© JK Rowling 2006
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