Report Sparks Investigation Into Iceland's Institutions for Adults With Disabilities Skip to content

Report Sparks Investigation Into Iceland’s Institutions for Adults With Disabilities

Recent reports of the mistreatment of adults with physical and developmental disabilities and mental illnesses housed at the Arnarholt Institution until the 1970’s are cause for an investigation of not only Arnarholt but all such institutions operating for the past 80 years. Members of Parliament’s Welfare Committee debate whether to entrust the Prime Ministry with the investigation or if an independent committee would be better suited for the job. They have requested information on the number of institutions and their residents through the years before making the decision.

In the past few years, the government has paid several people reparations for mistreatment as children at institutions such as Breiðavík or Kópavogshæli. Currently, the law awards reparations only to people housed at such institutions as children. No institutions with adult inhabitants have been investigated, despite a report on Kópavogshæli urging authorities to look into institutions for adults with physical or developmental disabilities as well as mental illnesses. Arnarholt in Kjalarnes in the vicinity of Reykjavík was one of those institutions.

Mistreatment of adults with disabilities at Arnarholt Institution

The City of Reykjavík opened Arnarholt Institution in 1945 as a beggars’ home. A Reykjavík District Physician’s report describes it as a home for the people of Reykjavík who can’t take care of themselves and don’t fit in with the rest of the city’s inhabitants, for a variety of reasons. The institution housed people with epilepsy or mental illnesses, alcoholics, deaf and mute people, senile people and people with disabilities, developmental and physical. It was not classified as a medical facility and was under the authority of the city’s welfare department. In 1972, the institution housed 60 people, aged 22-80+ and a doctor visited at least once a week.

In 1970, Steinunn Finnbogadóttir, midwife and city council member started suspecting that affairs in Arnarholt weren’t in order. She raised the issue with the city council, which ordered an investigation. In February of 1971, they appointed a committee of three doctors who met nine times and interviewed 24 people, who either had worked or were working at Arnarholt. The committee found that accusations of ill treatment were unfounded, but Steinunn disagreed with their conclusion. She read from the reports at closed city council meetings. Subsequently, the council decided to turn the institution into a medical facility and place it under the jurisdiction of the city hospital’s mental ward.

The report details the ill treatment and severe punishments of the institution’s inmates. The staff used an isolation cell as punishment, often and for extended periods. They also withheld meals and locked residents out in all weathers as punishment for sometimes minor infractions. Medical care was lacking, the institution was understaffed, and medication was mishandled. Some of the most troubling stories of the Arnarholt institution concerned frequent residents deaths. It seems that little care was taken to ensure sick people received medical attention. Sometimes, fatal illness could be traced to mistreatment, such as sick people forced to spend time outside with the other patients. Mistreatment aside, the building was in terrible condition, with one staff member comparing it to a concentration camp.

In September 1971, the city council intervened, and the institution became a part of the City Hospital’s mental ward. In 1972, it was first recognised as a nursing home, according to hospital laws. It was run as a medical institution until 2005 when it was closed down and patients transferred to other institutions. For a while, The Directorate of Immigration rented the building to house asylum seekers, but today, the building is rented as apartments.

The report was kept under wraps since the early seventies, presumably because it contained names of residents and staff members alike. Since RÚV revealed the accounts for the first time, several people have discussed the need to investigate the treatment of adults with disabilities and mental illnesses in years gone by.

An investigation is in order

City and state authorities all agree that an investigation is in order. Both the Icelandic Mental Health Alliance and the National Association of Intellectual Disabilities have called for an investigation, not just of the Arnarholt Institution but all institutions housing adults with disabilities and mental illnesses for the past 80 years. Therefore, even though Arnarholt was under the jurisdiction of the city of Reykjavík, Parliament will organise the investigation.

Vice-Chairman of Parliament’s Welfare Committee and Left-Green MP Ólafur Þór Gunnarsson suggested the Prime Ministry would be best suited to conduct the investigation as they have experience of a similar investigation focused on children in institutions. The committee’s Chair Helga Vala Helgadóttir considers an independent investigative committee to be the best option as it would be above party politics. The committee has given the Prime ministry until February 1 to gather the information and will subsequently plan its investigation.


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