Frequently Asked Questions

Here you will find the answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Who Is Behind the Platform “Our Faces – Our Stories?”

The online platform is a project of victims of compulsory social measures and placements in care and historians. Together with filmmakers and experts from the fields of digitalisation, communication, history didactics and archives, our team implemented this multimedia history education project.

Why Does the Online Platform “Our Faces – Our Stories” Exist?

Although quite a few other projects (films, exhibitions, research etc.) have already been dedicated to the subject of compulsory social measurements and placement in care, there still is little knowledge about this important topic of Swiss social history. We want to change this.

The experiences of 32 persons who themselves have been affected by compulsory social measures and placement in care take centre stage. However, their partners, children and professionals also get a chance to speak. They tell what happened, they talk about the consequences that are still noticeable today. And they explain how they, despite all, found the strength to continue to live – and how they fared.

What Was the Aim of Social Measures?

Placements in care and social measures under duress were socio-political tools for the authorities to enforce social norms and morals. People who were in economically or socially challenging situations and unmarried mothers were particularly at risk of becoming the focus of administrative measures of the authorities.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, preventive interventions have been possible on the basis of the new Civil Code (ZGB). In the following decades, eugenic justifications also played a role. Significant emphasis was placed on education for work through work with the reasoning that people affected by poverty should be less of a financial burden on the public purse. Poverty risks resulting from social inequality were ignored for a long time. Only with the establishment of social welfare systems such as the old age and disability pension (AHV, 1948) and the invalidity insurance (IV, 1960), an attempt to reduce the structural poverty risks was made.

Why Were There Placements in Care and Social Measures?

The reasons were numerous. If a person or a family did not live according to the prevailing norm or was dependent on support, the risk of so-called social measures under duress grew. A bourgeoise understanding of roles forced men and women into a tight moral corset.

Moreover, social insurances such as the old age and disability pension (AHV, 1948) and a compulsory health insurance (1996) were introduced late in Switzerland in comparison to other countries. Thus, an accident, an illness or death of a working parent could lead to the family having to rely on official support.

Placement of children and adolescents, administrative admission to institutions, homes, psychiatric clinics and penal institutions, adoption under duress, involuntary sterilisation or castration were all part of the Swiss social policy. This shows clearly: maintaining the social order was in many cases more important than the wellbeing of individual persons.

Who Was Affected?

Several 100,000 people were affected by compulsory social measures. Among them mainly the poor, Yenish people, addicts, unmarried or divorced mothers and their children, orphans or unemployed men. Adolescents and adults whom the authorities classified as “dissolute” or “indolent” were placed in labour institutions without court order. In the second half of the century the authorities increasingly targeted adolescents who demanded new freedoms for themselves. Many of the youths were also put into administrative detention (i.e. without having violated the criminal law).

Doctors in psychiatric clinics and hospitals sterilized women and castrated men to prevent them from having offspring. Other patients, sometimes also employees, were abused without their knowledge to test drugs that had not yet been approved.

How Were the Compulsory Social Measures and Placements in Care Carried Out?

The cantonal administrative law and the federal civil and criminal law were the basis for administrative decisions by the authorities. The cantons were responsible for the implementation, and in many places the funding was the responsibility of the home communities until 1978. Each canton enacted its own laws and procedures. Again and again social measures were taken without official decision, especially when children or adolescents were placed in care.

The laws insufficiently protected the individual freedoms of those affected and offered authorities a large scope for decision making. Besides the government authorities, private and church organisations were significantly involved in the implementation. Many of those affected experienced violence and abuse. Fair processes were not warranted. Official guardians often had more than 200 wards and were thus overburdened. This reinforced the feeling among those affected that they were merely being administered.

How Many Institutions Were There in Switzerland?

In the 19th and 20th century, a diverse institutional landscape emerged in Switzerland. More than 1,000 institutions of varying size and function were spread throughout Switzerland. Their names changed with time reflecting the respective zeitgeist. There were for example so-called poorhouses and orphanages, alcohol rehabilitation facilities, children’s and youth homes, juvenile correction facilities, mother-and-child homes, psychiatric institutions or forced labour institutions.

Both government agencies and non-governmental associations or religious organisations acted as sponsors of these facilities.

As the governmental, private and religious actors worked closely together, children, women and men were pushed around between the different facilities and parts of the country.

Were There Any Critical Voices Raised Against the Practice of Placement in Care and Compulsory Social Measures?

In Switzerland the public simply accepted the fate of people who were placed in care or cared for under coercive measures for decades respectively also supported the practice in referendums.

Already early on there were critical voices, among them famous people such as Jeremias Gotthelf (writer/pastor, 1797–1854), Carl Albert Loosli (writer/journalist, 1877–1959), Peter Surava (journalist, 1912–1995) or Marie Meierhofer (paediatrician, 1909–1998). But their criticism never led to more than a short-term media outcry. “Liberal and humanitarian Switzerland” did not allow any discussion on this topic.

The social point of view began to change only in the 1970s. The so-called Home Campaign at the beginning of the 1970s sharply criticised the authoritarian institutional education. Urgently needed, fundamental reforms in the institutional system were demanded and implemented. In 1972, the practice of Pro Juventute’s “Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse” was denounced in the magazine “Beobachter” and finally came to an end.

How Long Ago Was This?

The term “compulsory social measures and placements in care” sums up various measures. They never have been prohibited.

Placements of children and adolescents in foster families or foster homes decreased after the Second World War due to economic and social changes. But it was not until 1978 that a nationwide duty of authorisation and supervision was introduced.

With the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1974, Switzerland had to guarantee fair processes for administrative referrals. In 1981, all cantonal “detention laws” ceased to be in force. However, even today, institutionalisations for example commitments to a mental hospital still are possible by administrative means (“involuntary commitment”).

The reports of those affected show that despite fundamental changes in this area, experiences of violence, violation of integrity and lacking preparation for an autonomous life still are relevant today.

What About the Reassessment in Politics and Society?

A first reassessment took place in the 1980s regarding the practice of Pro Juventute’s “Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse” and led to an apology from the Federal Council for the first time as well as to compensation payments.

But when the reassessment of past injustice was initiated in other countries in 1990s, for example in Canada, Australia, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway or Belgium, Switzerland remained silent.

After several setbacks, the debate on compulsory social measures and placement in care has been present in the media in Switzerland since the turn of the millennium and is a topic in politics, society, culture and research. The voices of those affected are central to this. Since 2010, apologies were made, and commemorative events have taken place on a federal level and in various cantons. In some places, memorials commemorate the fates of those affected.

Upon request, victims can apply for the so-called solidarity contribution of 25,000 Swiss francs. There also are further demands on the part of research and those affected – especially to improve the living situation today – that are still waiting to be implemented.