The Distinguished Writing Award

The ward of the ill with fear

Parents’ anguished stories of children abused in psychiatric wards where they were sentenced by the courts are ignored. The suspected abusers have not been brought to trial and continue to work in hospitals. If it can happen in modern-day Poland, where else is it going on?

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In May 2015 I read about psychiatric wards designed for young people. I heard from many police officers that rebellious teens, who were having problems with finding their place in modern society, are often sent there by the courts. A hospital can be a solution if it offers psychological help and the correct therapy. But many Polish hospitals suffer from shortages of properly qualified specialists, and their wards become depositories or even prisons for difficult youths. On a website for people with emotional or psychological disorders, I read stories posted about Ward 23.

‘I am a mother of one of those children,’ an online user writes, ‘My son was lying down on a bed, all wet and soaked in urine. He lost 15 kg. He is no longer the same boy. He was stuffed with psychotropic drugs. For even a tiny fault he had to stand at attention in the middle of the hall. He was beaten and called names. When I telephoned the ward, I heard staff shouting at the children, and the complaints I made only caused my child to suffer more. Many parents are still afraid to talk about this. But I will not let this woman harm anybody else. I would like to testify against her.’

‘This Registrar is a real devil and a sadist,’ writes a mother of another boy. ‘I hope she is locked in jail for many years.’ Below, there is a reply from another online user: ‘Madam Registrar is doing just fine. She works for the court and gives rulings on whether a suspect is ill or not. Who will sentence one of their own?’

In the database of the regional authorities of Pomerania, I checked the list of expert witnesses. Five years after the events in the Kocborowo Hospital – where patients were treated as inhumanly as in a ‘concentration camp’ and several members of the staff were fired and prosecuted – the former Kocborowo Registrar Anna M. works as an expert witness in the District Court in Gdansk and in a health centre in Malbork, as a psychiatrist.

Two of the patients left their contact details in their comments. They enquire, ‘Is anyone still interested in our case? Any investigators?’ I ask them to talk to me and get a response. They also give me the contact details of their friends from Ward 23.

Hania describes her stay in the hospital in 2009 like this. ‘I was 15 when I ended up on the psychiatric ward. Police officers who came for me then didn’t tell me why they were taking me to a hospital. Maybe it was because I played truant all the time and did not obey the teachers. My strongest memory is when the Registrar ordered Robert to be tied up, although he had done nothing wrong. He was chubby, which is why she mocked him. He was lying there all tied up, he was relieving himself on his bed, and in the end the whole mattress leaked, and this stuff was seeping on the floor.

This kind of scene you don’t even see in a horror film. Everybody could come up and hit him. Some of the care assistants wanted to endear themselves to the Registrar, so they started beating him with ropes. He was shaking with fear. On another occasion, they tied up a boy and spat and threw food at him.

The Registrar organised brawls with girls. We were just horsing around when Dr. Anna came and said to Sara, ‘If you are so full of energy, why don’t you try a real fight.’ She took her to the exercise hall. Later, Sara came out humiliated and bruised while the doctor was laughing at her saying, ‘You can’t even fight.’

The Registrar was around 40 years old, slim and had short black hair. She often wore sunglasses, even indoors. She was vulgar. Other doctors don’t speak to people that way. She called us morons, thieves or other names. The care assistants humiliated us as well, but perhaps they were mainly following her wishes. There was one thing though that they did of their own accord, they touched girls who were tied up. Apparently they treated this as a bonus attached to the hospital job. One of the girls was raped; I don’t remember whether by a patient or a care assistant, in any event her parents reported this to the prosecution service. Nothing was done. If they didn’t do anything about the rape, we were certain they would not deal with the other forms of punishment either.

Once Dr. Anna threw one of the boys out in the yard dressed only in his underwear. She told him to bark, to pretend he was a dog. If she were only using injections and belts, maybe nobody would have ever found out about all of this. But she delighted in these humiliations. She ordered us to stick pieces of paper to our foreheads or on our backs with inscriptions like: ‘Moron’, ‘Stole’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Even nurses were saying that this wasn’t normal. Dr. Anna forced the girls and guys to run in the yard in their underwear when it was freezing, below -10°C. She watched them getting blue from the cold.

There was constant tension, waiting for punishment, bars in the windows. Most patients received doses of medicines which were too high. They moved like zombies, they didn’t know what year it was or where they were. When someone disobeyed an order, a drug called haloperidol was given to them. It twisted arms, by tensing the muscles. The nurses knew there were too many drugs around, so occasionally, instead of administering them to us, they threw them out, but only when the Registrar was out of sight. I think they feared her too. I don’t know if you have ever been tied up, wet with urine, beaten up, humiliated. But after that, there is no more normality. I think that Dr. Anna was more mentally ill than we were. But why didn’t anybody notice that?

You stink so much

The strangest thing was that the place was packed with all sorts of people: people with depression, anorexia, aggression and the rebellious ones, says Adam, a former patient. I ended up there at the age of 16. I was a healthy boy if a little overactive, raised by my grandma. I used to rap at the teachers, but others did worse, brawling, setting fire to chairs, and they were not sent to a psychiatric hospital. Maybe this has to do with poverty. In those places there were no rich people at all, even if they rebelled more than I did. People are not able to comprehend what we lived through there. You stand in one spot the whole day, you can’t move even a centimetre. You don’t know what this punishment is for; perhaps you made a mistake while singing Rota or a hymn invented by Dr. Anna. Your legs are buckling, but you know that if you crouch down, there is another punishment waiting for you. You watch the Registrar strolling by with her lady friend, the psychologist. They laugh, they joke, and you feel that life is draining from you. Two or three times she ordered that I be given medicines so strong that they would floor an elephant.

There was one drug, I don’t recall its name, but it caused aversion to everything. After taking it, you were only able to sleep although you had to do your lessons. Once I lost my ability to speak. My granny called, and she could not believe it because I had always been so resourceful and so voluble, and suddenly I couldn’t string a sentence together. Nothing was allowed there, only prohibitions and intoxicating drugs. I don’t know why the underaged are not provided with shampoo, toilet paper, washing powder in a hospital. Some of them didn’t have parents, and everyday they had to fight for such things. Dr. Anna, who drove the finest car, used to come up to us to say, ‘You stink so much.’ And maybe we were a little smelly, but let her try to live, even for a month, on 50 zlotys and to worry that there is no money to wash herself.

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My granny asked the doctors what was wrong with me. She didn’t understand why I had to stay in such a place if I wasn’t mentally ill. I don’t understand it to this day. And after you leave the psychiatric hospital, you are marked. As if you had a scar on your face. We don’t reveal our identities because people can be cruel, they laugh at you, they shout after you: ‘Lunatic, nutcase, psycho.’ After leaving, I was wobbly in my legs. The drugs didn’t clear out for a very long time. I couldn’t focus on anything. My body took many months to return to normal.

I don’t believe the Registrar will ever go to prison for what she did to us. If they let her continue practising her profession in a different place, different hospital, then I am sure she will do this again to people. The drugs give her unlimited power.

But there is no indictment yet

Even before 2010, reports about abuse on various wards in Kocborowo Hospital started to arrive in the prosecutor’s office in Stargard Gdanski. Prosecutors launched 14 investigations into hospital staff exposing patients to the risk of loss of life or serious harm to their health, into abuse of patients by care assistants, and into causing an underaged patient from ward 23 to have sexual intercourse. All 14 investigations were either dropped or discontinued. In May 2015, I called the regional prosecution service in Gdansk to ask about the reasons for acquitting the Registrar and which judge passed such a sentence. The prosecution’s spokesperson, Grazyna Wawryniuk, took me by surprise. ‘You are asking about the sentence but there isn’t even an indictment yet.’

I can’t believe my ears. ‘So the case hasn’t reached the court yet? But 5 years have already passed since these events.’

‘For a long time we were waiting for psychological reports about the victims, and there are more than 40 of them,’ explained the spokesperson, and she promised to talk with the prosecutor managing the case because the time the investigation is taking is indeed long.

In June 2015, I called the prosecutor dealing with the case, Bozena Kapusta, to ask when the indictment will be ready. ‘The investigation procedures were to be finished in June,’ she says, ‘But the psychiatrist, Dr. Anna M., became ill. She presented a sick note signed by court’s expert witness and was unable to take part in the meeting to review gathered evidence. And before indictment is formulated, we are obliged to make all evidence available to a suspect.’

– ‘What was Dr. M.’s illness?’

The care assistants touched girls who were tied up. Apparently they treated this as a bonus attached to the hospital job

‘That information is confidential. The sick note covered a few weeks in June up to the 1st of July.’

– ‘Patients with whom I have talked and the hospital workers who wrote the letter to the Ombudsman suggested that the Registrar initiated abuse. Has this been confirmed by your investigation?’

‘Yes, the psychiatrist has already heard the allegations.’

– ‘Are you aware that since 2005, Anna M. has been and still is an expert witness in the same court where hearing of her case is to take place?’

‘According to my knowledge, Anna M. is not on the list of expert witnesses. She is just co-opted to hearings by prosecutors.’

– ‘She is on the list of expert witnesses of the Governor of Pomerania published online. And all the time she is still practising as a psychiatrist in an outpatient clinic in Malbork. Why didn’t you take any preventive measures such as suspending her right to work?’

‘There is no need for that. There were no reasons. As you know, the prosecution witnesses are hospital patients so you have to approach what they say with a certain dose of caution.’

– ‘Why?’

‘They have all sorts of disorders. In any event, I am not sure if I am allowed to talk with you about this case. Please contact our spokesperson,’ she says and ends our conversation.

After my conversation with Prosecutor Kapusta, the Chairman of the Regional Court in Gdansk removed Anna M. from the list of expert witnesses on 2 July 2015. I ask the court’s spokesperson why this action was taken so late; Anna M. first heard allegations last November, and 5 years ago an inspection conducted by the regional authorities confirmed that punishments had been used.

‘But earlier we didn’t have this information from the prosecution service,’ explains the spokesman Tomasz Adamski. ‘As soon as the prosecutor informed us about the allegations, the Court’s Chairman removed Anna M. from the list of expert witnesses without delay. We also informed the Regional Medical Chamber in Gdansk about our steps.’

Sickness has thwarted our plans

Since Prosecutor Kapusta doesn’t want to talk to me, I go back to the spokesperson, Grazyna Wawryniuk. She says, ‘The allegations were made against the Registrar and two care assistants, Miroslaw L. and Marcin O. According to the investigation findings, all three of them abused patients physically and psychologically. Anna M. heard these allegations in November 2014; in March this year they were expanded. They concern taking baseless decisions for the purpose of punishing patients. Examples include long-term use of immobilisation, restricting access to food parcels, ordering barefoot patients dressed in pyjamas to go out in freezing weather, excessive use of placebo injections and so on. These punishments were used from January 2009 to December 2010, so for nearly two years. The case has not yet been sent to court because in June we carried out activities aimed at enabling the suspects to get to know the evidence. Due to her state of health, Anna M. could not take part in these activities.’

– ‘This matter has been dragging on for 5 years. When are you going to send the case to court?’

‘It is hard to say when the indictment will be ready because on July 1st, changes in the law were introduced. The Registrar’s illness has thwarted our plans. The changes in the law mean that the Prosecutor must successfully serve new instructions on all 40 victims. They have to confirm receipt to us but, of course, they may have changed their place of residence.’

– The prosecutor could have verified Anna M.’s ability to take part in legal proceedings, I am told by a prosecutor acquaintance of mine from another region. ‘Very often suspects present sick notes which raise my doubts, so I double check if they are able to participate in proceedings as they would have to suddenly go blind to be unable to read the evidence gathered during the investigation. To me, this whole investigation is a thin disguise. Probably, nobody really wanted to get involved before a journalist started chasing it up. And yet abuse and mistreatment by a doctor is one of the most serious crimes. Investigation into such a case can take a year but not 5 years! There are only 40 victims, not four thousand. Even now, serving new instructions on the victims can take a while, but this need not be an obstacle. If the prosecutor’s office doesn’t know the victims’ current addresses, then they are not doing their job properly. But I don’t know any community police officer who would not take action quickly after a call from a prosecutor asking him to determine the current address of a victim because it is needed in proceedings about the abuse of children. In this type of case, if there is good will on the side of prosecution, expert witnesses also usually speed up. The prosecution never waits for over a year for their opinions about patients! The most important thing is that the suspects should be prevented from doing more harm. Another problem is the obvious conflict of interest: the prosecution conducts an investigation in the same district where the suspect serves as an expert witness. Third issue, the prosecution service should have already informed the medical chamber about strong and probable suspicion of abuse 5 years ago. The psychiatrist could have been immediately suspended from practising. In such a case, the prosecutor should take into account that the former Registrar might use her position as a psychiatrist to seek more victims. Moreover, it is ruinous to the psychological well-being of the victims when they see that the perpetrator has not been punished years after the events.

Fired by mutual agreement of the parties

The inspection by the regional authorities revealed that the Registrar was hired to work on ward 23 without the required competitive recruitment process. I asked the current hospital’s director, Jacek Bielan, what experience in working as a doctor enabled Anna M. to assume the post of Registrar. ‘I have no idea. I became a director in 2011 and I don’t know anything about the former Registrar. Except that she held grudges against us for disciplinary dismissal,’ says Bielan. ‘I met her only once, in the Employment Tribunal. We signed a settlement, and in the end she was released from her duties by mutual agreement of the parties. According to the settlement, the disciplinary dismissals of care assistants were also changed into departures by mutual agreement.’

– ‘But why?’ I can’t believe it.

‘I did not want to keep going to the tribunal. My primary duty is to look after the patients’ welfare. On ward 23 the personnel was replaced, there is effective monitoring, and now everything works correctly. I had to focus on these types of actions.’

– ‘But because they were not subject to disciplinary dismissals, the suspects could have found jobs in the same profession and could use similar forms of abuse against other patients.’

‘I leave to the courts the question of punishing the Registrar and the care assistants. For me, this is already in the past. I don’t know if you have taken into account what the Registrar had to deal with. The ward was new, she could have missed something, and later, there were so many problems that she was not able to cope. Of course, God forbid, one should not perpetrate abuse,’ explains Dr. Bielan.

I want to check the real state of health of Dr. Anna M. and what sickness is causing delays in the investigation. I book a medical appointment with her. First, I ring her private number.

‘People like to let their aggression out, preferably against those who are psychologically weak and whom nobody will believe’

An irritated psychiatrist answers the phone, ‘But you want to make an appointment in Malbork, and I receive private patients in another place. They screwed up everything on the practice’s webpage.’

– ‘Doesn’t matter where as long as it is soon,’ I answer, and the doctor gives me the number for the Psychiatry Centre in Malbork.

I visit her with a story about anxieties resulting from maltreatment by my cold mother. Anna M. is an elegant woman, she comes across as extraordinarily self-assured with commanding gestures and decisive movements. It is clear that she doesn’t tolerate defiance. Every now and then she glances at her telephone lying nearby. Unfortunately, after a few minutes she has to end the visit because ‘I chose the worst possible day’, but she stresses that she would very much like to help me. And together with her psychologist friend, they would work on me.

At the reception I learn that in June, Dr. Anna was on sick leave for only 3 days. Apart from that she has received patients as usual.

I ask the prosecution service’s spokesperson whether she knew that Anna M. was receiving patients at the time she claimed she could not take part in investigation procedures. I hear her answer, ‘Prosecutor Kapusta has asked to specify that initially the sick note was valid up to June 21st and later it was extended by an expert witness to July 1st. We have no knowledge whether in this time Dr. M was seeing patients because on what basis could we have checked or questioned medical certificates signed by an expert witness?’

– ‘On the basis that Anna M. herself is a doctor and an expert witness, she could have been a colleague of the person who signed the certificates. Can I ask for the name of the expert witness to check if he/she is acquainted with Dr. M?’

‘That information is confidential.’

There is no reason why she should not practise

– ‘For which patient’s opinion have you been waiting the longest, and how long has it taken?’ I ask the spokesperson.

‘We have been waiting long for all of them. Besides, we have been waiting for the opinion about the conduct of Dr. Anna M. and of the care assistants towards patients for 2 years. Experts had to establish whether or not their behaviour remained within the scope of therapy procedures.’

– ‘What instances of abuse of patients by the care assistants have been confirmed during the investigation?’ I ask the spokesperson.

‘Beating, kicking, calling names.’

– ‘Do they still work in their profession?’

‘It is likely they do, but I don’t know where.’

On one of the websites I found this comment by a patient: ‘Dr. Anna M. insults patients of the Medical Centre in Malbork. She even uses threats if something is not to her liking. How is it possible that such a person is working as a psychiatrist?’

I ask the spokesperson, ‘Does the prosecutor feel OK knowing that the psychiatrist and the care assistants who, according to accusations, abused patients in the course of performing their professional duties, kept working in their professions for the next 5 years?’

She replies, ‘Prosecutor Kapusta can’t interfere in the suspects’ professional lives until she has gathered all the evidence. Currently, she thinks that there are no reasons to use the preventive measure of suspending Dr. M. from practising psychiatry.’

Prosecutor Kapusta has also not referred the suspect Anna M. for medical examinations. In her opinion there is no need for this.

Children’s suffering gave her pleasure

– ‘The worst thing was to be tied up for many days to a metal bed,’ Joasia tells me, who was a patient on the ward in 2009. ‘We had old mattresses soaked in urine. Sometimes, when a good nurse was on a shift, she would bring a bedpan, and you could relieve yourself. At other times a good nurse just wasn’t there. You stare at one point on the ceiling. You don’t know the time, the month. Your whole body becomes stiff, and you don’t know if this is caused by fear or by those drugs. And yet you could be tied up with belts for 3 weeks for some nonsense. For example, you did not address the staff as “Madam doctor”, it should have been, “Please, Madam”. I think that many care assistants enjoyed the Registrar’s brutality. They did not have to beat us and put us down on her orders. But people like to let their aggression out, preferably against those who are psychologically weak and whom nobody will believe.’

– ‘We called Dr Anna “Hitler” or “Gestapo”’, says Marta, who came on ward 23 at the age of 15 suffering with anorexia, ‘because she clearly divided people into better and worse. She liked to talk with the psychologist, she treated nurses with disdain, and she considered care assistants as subhuman and not worth talking to. I was in her favour, but she treated Robert, who could not express himself and was slightly disabled, like an animal. She selected several patients she thought of as worse and gave them so many drugs that she turned them into vegetables. She most harmed the weakest ones, not the aggressive ones. I think that children’s suffering gave her pleasure. I also remember care assistants Mirek and Marcin who abused the youngest patients. When boys were immobilised, they hit and kicked them. The worst for me was that many nurses and care assistants knew about this. They talked among themselves that they pitied the children. But nobody did anything about it.’

The former Registrar refused to talk to me. She only noted, ‘The whole affair is the result of revenge. I started to report abuse by care assistants on the ward, and they attacked me on many fronts, among others, they instigated this affair, and wrote to the Ombudsman. Please, leave your telephone number, I don’t rule out giving you an interview in the future,’ she stated at the end.


This article was translated into English and shortened to fit in the 36 pages of De Groene Amsterdammer special European Press Prize 2016 edition.

The original story was published in the Polish magazine Duzy Format