Rowling, J. K. "Kids should know family love." The Sun, June 22, 2007.

HARRY POTTER author JK Rowling is continuing her campaign to end the scandal of children kept in cages in east European mental hospitals.

She began her crusade last year after reading an exposé of the scandal in The Sunday Times in 2004.

It featured a picture of Vasek Knotek, a young boy in a care home near Prague whose face stared out from a bed surrounded by heavy mesh.

The author launched a charity called the Children’s High Level Group, which campaigns for improved rights for children in institutions.

Here, in her own powerful and moving words, she explains why the work is so important.

TWO weeks ago I visited Prague for the first time.

It is a city I have long wished to see, though I never imagined that I would be driving past Charles Bridge to visit mentally handicapped and abandoned children, and that nearly all my new Czech acquaintances would turn out to be psychiatrists and social welfare workers working actively to change things.

I was there as a direct result of a newspaper article I had read in 2004, concerning the use of cage beds in a psychiatric facility just outside Prague.

It highlighted the case of a very young, mentally handicapped boy kept in a cage bed. Isolated, bereft of human contact and enclosed for most of his day, this child’s story was desperately disturbing.

After writing innumerable letters to anyone whom I thought might help, I made contact with Baroness Emma Nicholson.

Together we founded the Children’s High Level Group, a charity that seeks to protect and promote children’s rights across Europe.

Central to our aims is moving children out of institutional care.

In the EU survey of the Czech Republic, it was reported that there were ten times as many young children in institutional care than in foster care.

A quarter of these children have a disability of some kind.

I visited two institutions during my visit. The first was a short-stay refuge for children experiencing crisis in their families, the only one of its type in Prague.

The objective of this centre was, wherever possible, to reunite children with their families.

Social workers working out of the home offered help to resolve the issues that had led to the children running away or else being placed at the refuge.

The main problems, as the home’s director explained to me, were a lack of funding and of social workers working with families in the community.

It was clear that this place existed as a “safety net”, rather than an alternative, to families, and offered very valuable support to children and their relatives.

Our second visit was to a state-funded institution for 25 children who suffer from a variety of illnesses or disabilities, or who have been abused or neglected.

In contrast to the earlier home, there was a definite “hospital” atmosphere, with all staff in white uniforms, even though not all of the children were physically ill.

In nearly all of these cases, families had handed over their child because they felt unable, or were unwilling, to care for them at home.

Those who received any visits from parents were in a tiny minority.

Most shocking to me was being told that physical therapy was “contra-indicated” for children with cerebral palsy; in Britain, physical and occupational therapy are cornerstones of such children’s therapy.

Likewise, I saw Down’s Syndrome children here, who in the UK often attend mainstream primary schools.

In the last room we saw we found children who had been neglected or abused.

One little girl launched herself into my lap, and sat stroking my hair while I heard some of the stories behind the children’s residency in the home.

They were sadly familiar tales of parental abuse, often alcohol-fuelled, such as are familiar in every country.

The director lamented the fact that the little girl in my lap had been at the institution so long.
She ought, he felt, to have been moved out to foster care as quickly as possible. She smiled and waved as I left. I wanted to cry.

Quite apart from their effect on mental and physical development, institutions such as the one I visited are enormously expensive.

More foster care, more social workers, establishment of those health and welfare networks that might enable care in the community, of short-stay crisis centres such as the one we visited: these were the needs identified by progressive health and welfare workers we met during our brief visit.

There was an unexpected postscript to my trip. Barely had I left the Czech Republic than it was reported in the Czech press that I had announced that I “regretted” my “strong criticism” of the use of cage beds.

On the contrary, I continue to hope that the process of de-institutionalisation in eastern Europe can be led by the Czech Republic, which has the means and the expertise to return future generations of both disabled and able-bodied citizens to loving, family care.

© JK Rowling 2007


Original page date 22 June 2007; last updated 22 June 2007.