Press Release

IACHR Issues Precautionary Measures to Guatemala and Laments Deaths in Fire at Children’s Residential Institution

March 13, 2017

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its sorrow over the deaths of at least 38 girls and female adolescents housed in the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution—a large institution for young girls and adolescents in the Guatemalan city of San José Pinula—and issues precautionary measures. The IACHR calls on the State to investigate what happened and why, with all due diligence and without delay, and to take urgent steps to ensure that such events do not happen again. It also calls on the State to provide care to those who suffered serious burns or other physical or psychological injuries as a result of the fire, and to immediately implement all necessary actions to guarantee the rights of all the children and adolescents at this institution while the State takes effective steps to encourage their reintegration into their families, whenever possible and with any necessary support, or to identify care alternatives that provide greater protection.

According to publicly available information, on March 8, 2017, a fire broke out at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, allegedly set by a group of girls and adolescents at the institution who had been in lockdown in reprisal for their attempt to escape the day before. Dozens of girls and teens had reportedly participated in the escape attempt on March 7, apparently in protest over family visit schedules, the food provided, and situations involving abuse, mistreatment, and sexual violence against them at the institution. Some of those involved in the escape attempt have reportedly not yet been found.

At least 38 girls and female adolescents lost their lives in the fire, and several dozen other people are reportedly being treated for injuries and burns. Some of them are said to be in a critical condition, which means the death toll could rise.

According to information published by some media outlets, at the time of the fire between 700 and 800 girls and adolescents were living at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, which reportedly has a capacity to hold around 400, although the figures available are unclear and unreliable. The institution takes in children and teens who have been victims of violence, lack adequate parental care, have some type of disability, are pregnant, have addictions, or are in some other circumstance that caused them to be placed in the institution as a protective measure taken by the State to ensure their well-being. Even though the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution is reportedly meant to protect vulnerable children and female adolescents, press reports indicate that the institution also has a unit for male adolescents who have broken the law or who have completed their sentences but are still not in a position to return to their families.

In its report The Right of Boys and Girls to a Family. Alternative Care: Ending Institutionalization in the Americas, the IACHR examined in detail the situation concerning the rights of children and adolescents who lack adequate parental care or who for other reasons related to their protection need to be placed in some type of alternative care arrangement to protect their rights and integrity. In that report, the IACHR expressed its deep concern over the situation of children and adolescents in large residential care institutions, due to the poor health, hygiene, and safety conditions and overcrowding at most such facilities, conditions that are incompatible with the goal of protection and care. Such large institutions often lack enough caregivers and other staff to handle the large number of children, and lack personnel who are sufficiently qualified and trained to give them the support and help they need. In such settings, it is also common to find children and adolescents in very different circumstances who are not grouped together by age and protection needs, which can lead to situations of abuse and violence.

The IACHR has also raised the alarm about frequent allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual violence—perpetrated by staff or by other residents—in these types of large institutions, as well as negligent treatment, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to age-appropriate educational and medical services, and unwarranted restrictions to contact with family members, all of which constitute serious violations of the rights of children.

In this regard, the IACHR reiterates that States have a heightened duty as guarantors of children who are in their care in residential facilities or institutions. This implies an obligation to ensure that their rights are protected and that they receive care appropriate to their circumstances; it also entails adopting the necessary measures to prevent situations of risk—such as this one—that seriously jeopardize the fundamental rights of these children and adolescents. The IACHR has also called to mind that States have an obligation to keep boy and girls who are in their care for protection purposes separate from adolescent offenders.

Moreover, the IACHR places emphasis on the principles of necessity, exceptionality, and temporal determination in separating children from their families and their communities to place them in a care arrangement, and stresses that these decisions may be taken only in the best interests of the child. In addition, the IACHR reminds States that in fulfilling their obligation to protect the rights of children and children’s right to live with their families, States should adopt adequate measures to support and assist families in raising and caring for children and adolescents, especially measures for families in vulnerable situations.

The IACHR urges the State to ensure that the investigation into these events is conducted with due diligence to clarify what happened and determine the causes, taking into consideration the testimony of the girls and adolescents and their opinions about what triggered these terrible events. States have the obligation to conduct serious, diligent, and impartial investigations into incidents that occur in facilities where there are people in their care and that involve deaths, injuries, or allegations of rights violations. These investigations should shed light on what happened and identify those who, either by action or omission, bear some level of responsibility, and should lead to appropriate punishment, as well as provide a means of reparation for the victims. The IACHR also urges the State to make the necessary efforts to promptly locate the girls and adolescents who are said to be missing in the wake of the events of March 7 and 8.

Considering these types of situations, the IACHR calls on all States in the region to end the institutionalization of children in large institutions such as the one in which these terrible and regrettable events took place. In this regard, the IACHR urges the State of Guatemala not to allow this institution to take in any more children and adolescents and to strongly support efforts to reintegrate the girls and adolescents into their families, or when this is not possible, to place them in a care arrangement that meets international standards and that can truly offer them safety, protection, and care.

As this press release was being drafted, the IACHR made the decision to grant Precautionary Measure 958-16, which asks the State of Guatemala to adopt the necessary measures to protect the life and personal integrity of the children and adolescents at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, including those who were seriously burned or suffered other physical or psychological injuries because of the fire. The precautionary measure also asked the State to ensure that the conditions provided for the children and adolescents at the residential institution are brought into line with applicable international standards while the State takes effective steps to encourage their reintegration into their families, whenever possible and with any necessary support, or to identify care alternatives that provide greater protection; prohibit the institutionalization of more children and adolescents at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution; reach agreement with the beneficiaries and the petitioner on the measures to be adopted; and report on the steps taken to investigate the allegations that led to the adoption of this precautionary measure, so as to prevent a recurrence.

A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 031/17