Swiss to vote on mistreated children reparations

Former victims of forced institutionalisation in Switzerland pose with photos from their childhoods during a demonstration in March 2014 Keystone

A group behind an initiative seeking financial compensation for people forcibly removed from their families as children have handed in signatures to force a nationwide vote.

This content was published on December 19, 2014 - 14:26 and agencies

The committee behind the initiative “Reparations for injustice done to children who were forcibly removed from their families” want the federal government to create a CHF500 million ($516 million) fund for victims who were “seriously and directly affected by the measures”. 

The initiative text states that an independent commission will fix the compensation according to the “seriousness of the injustice”. The group also want an independent study and public debate. 

In a practice that lasted in Switzerland until 1981, tens of thousands of children and teenagers were forcibly removed from their families, who for one reason or another were deemed by the authorities to be incapable of caring for them. 

Effectively a cheap labour force, the children were sometimes beaten, malnourished, or sexually abused. For their part, unmarried teenage mothers and dropouts could be detained without trial or interned in psychiatric hospitals right up until the 1980s. The authorities sometimes even decreed that the adults should be castrated or sterilised and forced to hand their children over for adoption. 

In the early 2000s, survivors’ accounts began to appear in the media, triggering questions in parliament. For a long time, the churches, cantons, communes, and government all blamed each other – some even playing down the mistreatment suffered by the children. 

The situation began to change in 2010 when, following heavy lobbying, women who had been detained without trial in the Hindelbank prison in canton Bern obtained an official apology from federal and cantonal authorities. 

Recently, 500 people who were wrongly placed in homes and incarcerated requested immediate financial compensation. As of the end of October 300 cases had been dealt with. 

The injustices were also recognised in a recent law that came into force on August 1, whereby people wrongly placed in homes or foster families were granted access to their file. 

The committee collected 110,000 signatures ten months ahead of the official deadline. One hundred thousand signatures are required to bring an initiative to a nationwide vote. The signatures gathered will now be counted and verified, and if the initiative is found to be valid, a vote date will be announced in future. 

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