J K Rowling: My fight to save caged children
Jack Grimston, Sunday Times, 5 February 2006
ONE of the world's most successful authors, J K Rowling, has written about her campaign to end the scandal of children kept in cages in east European mental hospitals.
The author of the Harry Potter books is to visit victims of the policy after accepting an invitation from Czech officials.
Today Rowling reveals for the first time the full extent of her campaign, which she began after reading an exposé of the scandal in The Sunday Times in 2004. Writing in News Review, she describes how she was gripped by a picture of Vasek Knotek, a little boy in a care home near Prague , whose face stared out from a bed surrounded by heavy mesh.
Rowling thought: “If you read the piece and it's as bad as the picture, then you've got to do something about it.”
When she read the report the impact was immediate. For her, the “one unendurable terror”, she writes, “is incarceration in a very small space”.
“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.”
Rowling's campaigning has not been without difficulties. She has had to combine her efforts with work for numerous other charitable causes and her roles as mother and author. She admits that her desire to help the caged infants led her to stop breastfeeding her third child slightly early when she travelled to Bucharest last month.
She was there to launch a charity called the Children's High Level Group, which will campaign for improved rights for children. Its causes include those of children in institutions and ending what Rowling calls the “widespread cultural acceptance, even encouragement, of abandonment in the cases of children with mental and physical handicaps”.
Many British families have adopted Romanian children, but the Romanian government has declared a moratorium on the practice despite lobbying from the West. Rowling acknowledges that “it is an issue around which tempers flare like grenades”.
In today's article Rowling, who is committed to writing a seventh and final Harry Potter novel, writes of the “exceptional” children and teenagers she met who had experienced Romania 's care system. She describes how she found one abandoned baby lying listlessly in a hospital. “I tickled her cheek with a finger; she continued to look ahead. But then as I was about to move away she looked round and gave a sudden smile.” Rowling was so choked that she felt she had a “hard-boiled egg in her throat”.
Conditions for children in Romania , says Rowling, have improved hugely since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. But she writes: “There is still much work to do there — more than 30,000 children remain in care.”