Almost 60% of children in institutional care in Serbia are children with disabilities. Most of them are confined to institutions for the rest of their lives, segregated from local communities, with limited or no access to education. Data from the Republic Institute for Social Policy of Serbia shows that only 9% of children with disabilities live with their families or family-based settings. According to Biljana Janjic, the Opening Doors National Coordinator and Programme Associate of the Mental Disability Rights Initiative Serbia (MDRI-S), “Children with disabilities inside Serbian institutions experience physical and chemical restrain, isolation and practices such as overmedication – this constitutes inhumane and degrading treatment and can amount to torture.”
Lack of response from the Serbian government towards numerous warnings by the civil society about the unlawful use of isolation and restraint against people with mental disabilities has resulted in death of a 22-year-old resident in Veternik institution. He died in fire at the beginning of June 2016 being locked up in a 2 sq m isolation room due to his ’problematic’ behaviour. Recommendations by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks for immediate deinstitutionalisation – who in March 2015 visited Veternik institution – have been also neglected by Serbian authorities. Despite the suspension of care staff in Veternik, MDRI-S argues that officials in the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs and the local government representatives who ignored warnings about degrading practices towards persons with disabilities must be held responsible and face criminal charges.
The Ombudsman’s call for the deinstitutionalisation of persons with disabilities was supported by the Serbian parliament. In December 2014 the Ombudsman presented the Map of Deinstitutionalisation, prepared in co-operation with expert NGOs , which identified the key steps in deinstitutionalisation reforms in Serbia. However, the child rights activists warn that contrary to its proclaimed commitment, lack of comprehensive deinstitutionalisation strategy had the Serbian government putting almost a million euro into a new institution for children and young people with disabilities in Stamnica and refurbishing another facility in Kulina at the beginning of April 2016.
“Without stopping further investment in institutional care, redirecting financing to community based services and closing such institutions as Veternik and Kulina where some of the utmost human rights violations result in innocent deaths, commitment to deinstitutionalisation cannot be fully embraced” says Opening Doors National Coordinator in Serbia Biljana Janjic.