Saturday 11th March, 2017
Guatemala is coming to the end of three days of national mourning for the 32 girls who lost their lives when a fire was started at the “secure” children´s home on the outskirts of Guatemala City. The home has been under investigation so many times due to the increasing number of allegations of abuse, rape and torture. I thought I would write here of a personal experience of the first time I visited the home and how a young boy was treated when he was transferred there in 2009.
I was travelling between the UK and Guatemala in 2009 and trying to continue my work with children and young people on the streets. I had a growing concern for the children who had been forcibly removed from children´s homes and who had then made contact with me pleading for help.
Sadly a UK charity was behind these removals and had tried their best to cover up what was happening with the charity they ran and funded here in Guatemala. Two boys who had been told in the middle of the night to pack up their things and leave are still scarred by the experience as they lost contact with all their friends and were left homeless.
I became aware of the situation after the boys contacted me and told me of how one of the younger boys from the home had been removed, according to them, because the costs of paying for his specialist medical treatment was becoming too expensive. This led me to my first visit to the Virgen de la Asunción Secure Children´s Home in Guatemala.
The boy in question had been taken to the secure home and so I went to visit there in the hope of trying to get access to him and help him find a more suitable place to live and get the care he needed.
Driving up to the home can be quite overwhelming as the walls are high and covered in razor wire and have armed security guard posts around the perimeter, like you would expect to see at a high-security unit for adults. But this was a children’s home! Despite not having an appointment or legal papers from a judge allowing me access to the home, I knocked on the large black doors and asked to see the Director.
I was taken to see the Director who listened to my story and called for the Social Worker and Psychologist to join us in her office. I explained to the three women how I had come to see a boy I will just called Mark. They quizzed me as to why I wanted to see him and so I talked about how we had rescued him from the streets when he was about nine. I found him wandering the streets one evening wearing just a pair of shorts and displaying great signs of distress. His first few weeks in the home were hard for staff as they told me of his cries in the night shouting out to stop being abused. It was distressing for all of us.
The staff in the secure home then realised that I had played a special part in his life and asked me if I wanted to see him. Of course I did and so Mark was brought into the room. He did not know how to respond to me as he hadn´t seen me for a long time and was unable to stand up straight. He was asked who he was and responded by saying his name was Mark. The next question made me well up. He was asked who the people in the room were. He named the Director, the Social Worker and the Psychologist and then said “and Profe Duncan”. When asked who Profe Duncan was he said: “my family”.
I could not hold back the tears and neither could he and he came over for a hug. It was clear he was getting some form of care in the home but asked me to take away from there as he didn´t like it. He was then taken away but I did manage to grab this photo of him before he left.
The staff told me how the charity had sought a court order to have him placed there and showed me his file and then showed me MY NAME in the file! The charity had made the case that the boy was dangerous to himself and to others and should be kept under sedation and in now terms should have contact with Duncan Dyason. “It´s sad”, said the psychologist, “that not once had the charity been to visit him”. What made matters worse was that the charity had explicitly written that he must not have contact with me. They found it amazing that I had come to find him after all this time but the charity had not been to see him at all. It was like he had just been abandoned there.
To make the situation even worse they went on to tell me that because the report had come from the charity they accepted their version of events and kept Mark strapped down and injected him daily to keep him in a semi-comatosed state.
With each visit to see Mark I got to see the home and how it was run and became increasingly disturbed by all I saw and the many children who, when they got the chance, begged me to take them from there. I walked around rooms filled with cots where young children sat with their legs or wrists tied to the cot and rocked back and forth. I listened to children talk about rape, abuse and how staff disciplined young children with beatings by older children.
The crowed and dirty facilities were unfit for purpose but the Guatemalan government did not act to close the home, despite receiving many reports of the alleged abuses by staff and other children. Many children have escaped from the home over the years and some end up on the streets and tell us of stories that many would not believe. They talk about abuses, torture and rape and how the degrading treatment and disgusting facilities started to turn them mad. The home was originally designed to house between 300-400 children but on our last visit more than 700 were reportedly detained there.
The Virgen de la Asunción home must now close and the facility levelled and maybe the place turned into a memorial park for thoise who lost their lives there.
Rather than 3 days of national mourning and the sad faces of Guatemalan government officials, we NEED JUSTICE. I would call for the Guatemalan government to allow an independent investigation into the home and to commit themselves to prosecute ALL those who have abused children in the home.
The 50 or so girls who escaped on the 7th of March were recaptured and returned to the home that night. They were locked in rooms by staff and the following day some girls set light to a mattress to complain about how they were being treated. This is when things got out of hand. Staff, it seems, did not respond to the calls as the fire spread and the girls burnt to death. Many survivors were rushed into hospital with severe burns but died later.
As people around the world celebrated International Women´s Day on Wednesday 8th March, young girls in Guatemala burnt to death in the care of the Guatemalan government. The press in Guatemala printed pages of the charred remains the girls, piled up on top of each other. It is not sad, it is outrageous and the world must take action and not allow the Guatemalan government to get away with this.
We demand ACTION and PROSECUTION NOW!