Bogota - Children living in orphanages in Guatemala suffer physical abuse, with some locked in cages, researchers said on Monday in a report calling for improving ways of keeping children with their families.
"Serious and pervasive abuses" were found in 13 private and government-run orphanages across the country visited by the Disability Rights International (DRI), the group said in its report.
Nearly 5 000 children live in about 40 state and private-run orphanages in Guatemala, and many have at least one living parent but are placed in orphanages by families too poor to feed them.
The report uncovered horrific abuses in places such as the privately run Hogar Virgen del Socorro shelter in Antigua, said Eric Rosenthal, head of the US-based DRI, an international human rights organisation.
"We found 175 children all with shaved heads, tied to their wheelchairs, tied to metal railings, held in cages," Rosenthal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I've never seen a facility where every child is tied down."
Priscila Rodriquez, DRI associate director, said in a statement: "The Guatemalan government has failed to protect children from family separation and has neglected to provide the supports needed for families to keep their children."
Guatemala's deputy ombudsman for human rights, Claudia Maselli, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that practices such as those found in the report were unacceptable.
She said more needs to be done to support families and strengthen community ties to prevent children from being sent away in the first place.
"The study reiterated evidence that there's an institutional weakness in terms of protecting children in the country," she said.
Guatemala's orphanages receive money and help from volunteers from U.S.-based faith groups and international non-governmental organisations that run orphanage tours.
"An enormous amount of foreign money is coming in, building orphanages and the children receive nothing," Rosenthal said.
The dangers children face were tragically exposed last year when 41 girls died in a fire at the government-run Virgen de la Asuncion shelter in Guatemala City.
It emerged that the girls had been locked in a classroom after an escape attempt and had set mattresses on fire to call for help.
Rosenthal said pregnancies had been reported among girls at the shelter, and he heard first-hand accounts of sexual abuse by the staff.
The whereabouts of hundreds of children who survived the fire remain unaccounted for, the DRI said.
"The authorities say they escaped. We are afraid they may have been trafficked into the sex industry," Rosenthal said.
"One of the problems of growing up in an orphanage is that you are not streetwise, you have no ties in the community, family and friends."
According to the UN children's agency Unicef, placing a child in an orphanage quadruples their risk of becoming a victim of sexual violence, including rape.
Oscar Rodriguez, Guatemala's ombudsman for the protection of children, said more than 200 children who survived the blaze have been transferred to other shelters but that there has not been "an appropriate follow-up."
Authorities have charged three former government officials for their roles in the girls' deaths, abuse of authority and child abuse.
The ombudsman's office sought investigations into several possible cases of children being sex trafficked at Asuncion before the fire and at other homes in the past year, Maselli said.
Thomson Reuters Foundation