In this interview, singer and actor Holly Valance explains why she is an avid supporter of Disability Rights International.
I came across the Dateline investigation purely by chance. I just happened to be watching the television when the program came on. In that episode, Ann had traveled to Serbia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) to visit institutions for mentally disabled children. The conditions were horrific. Gaunt, half-starved children languished in crib after crib. Some children were so starved for attention they had literally stopped growing. Their parents had been told that their disabled children would be better taken care of in specialized institutions. However, the reality was that the institutions were neglecting these children and holding them in dank cells behind crumbling walls.
The story terrified me. My father is Serbian. My sister is disabled. This could have been our story. Rather, in Australia — where I was born — such horrors do not exist as healthcare is free and people are looked after very well. Medicine and physio support are supplied as are caregivers, specialists, therapists, and surgeries. You name it, they provide it. This level of support is truly game changing.
Disability Rights International (DRI) was the organization that led Ann Curry to these institutions. The investigation prompted me to think of the absolute worst thing I could imagine (which is child abuse), and then go even further because these children are also disabled, so life is already pretty confusing and a struggle. I don’t think I could think of a more vulnerable human on earth — a disabled child.
After watching the program, I immediately flew to Washington D.C. to visit the DRI office. I wanted to
meet the team face to face and asked to be educated on their mission and the challenges they face. I also
requested to join them on a reconnaissance trip, which I have done several times now.
Through these experiences, I deduced that working at an advocacy level with governments and legislators can have a far more powerful effect than, say, volunteering my time at an orphanage or institution to care for these kids because they shouldn’t be in there in the first place. Children need to be with a family, with love and care. Not shoved en masse into dark buildings miles away from anyone.
To put their work in the simplest terms, DRI physically walks into institutions and orphanages they suspect are abusing human rights, and observes and investigates the children’s living conditions, behaviors, treatments, therapies, medical treatment, and general life. They create extensive reports on their findings and release the reports worldwide. Because the reports often capture shocking mistreatment, they generally get governments’ attention and shine a huge light onto the forgotten people living in these places. This starts a ripple of change.
Usually, DRI’s next steps include helping to place the children back with their families. This is possible because more than 90% of children living in institutions or “orphanages” are not orphans. They are placed there, most often, because they have disabilities or special needs and their parents are ill-equipped or unable to care for them. DRI understands this and works with governments to identify the different kinds of support that can be offered to these families to help them care for their own children. DRI also works in society at large to destigmatize children with disabilities.
Sadly, orphanages are rarely a good alternative for raising children. No child can get the care it needs when it is one of so many, being cared for “in bulk.” It’s not how human beings’ brains and bodies thrive. We need family, one-on-one time, and care with one another. Orphanages at their very worst are buildings of terror, rape, organ harvesting, and abuse. Even at their best, orphanages are often buildings of neglect, boredom, and squalor. We should be wary of businesses and charities offering the opportunity to work in, visit, or help support orphanages. Being informed is important and the responsible thing to do.
By working at the very pinnacle of change, on legislation and destigmatization, DRI can, despite its modest size, have a mind-blowing impact. That’s what more than 30 years of experience has taught it.
They can achieve a monumental shift in conditions for disabled children/people across the world by working country by country. They close down institutions and place children back with their families and provide support. They save lives. Daily.
Having visited Serbia personally with DRI, the “hell holes” (there is no other way to describe them) we visited are no longer operating. There are programs now in the region to educate people. Health and social care workers can provide support to parents so that they can keep their beloved children. This is better for the child, better for society, and better for government.
Orphanages are more expensive to run than supporting families and they can’t do what families do extremely well — raise a human being with love and dignity.
I remember being very teary and tired for the first few weeks after my daughter Luka was born. As I was learning how to be a mother and discovering how utterly reliant and defenseless my baby girl was, it also struck me how horrid life must be for children without a loving family member to hold and kiss them and care for them. This thought still devastates me today.
Because of my acting and singing career, I was traveling the world by the time I was 16. Although I came out of that time unscathed, in hindsight, I was a very brave teenager and I would definitely teach my own children to be way more careful when they get to that vulnerable age. I often say that the last day that I relaxed was the day Luka was born because I don’t think I would ever be able to stop worrying about my children.
However, this also makes me think of just how hopeless the children in these institutions must feel with no tribe to defend or look out for them.
I think becoming a mother has only made me even more committed to the work that DRI does and to supporting their cause. I hope that through DRI, thousands more baby girls and boys will get to stay with their families and receive the love and care that every human deserves.
I think it’s great to get behind organizations, but you really need to know what the real problems are, understand the issues, stand where the issues are happening, and view them for yourself. I can speak passionately about the subject because I’ve now stood there and seen the despicable conditions, smelt the hideous filth, listened to the helpless and frightening, gut-wrenching cries.