Enforced welfare measures in Switzerland

13.1 Einleitung Heimatlose und Fahrende Bild
Source: Brief von Alfred Siegfried, Zentralsekretär der Pro Juventute an das Polizeikommando des Kantons Aargau, 14. März 1938.

Cared for, placed, taken away from their parents, locked up: the welfare measures enforced by the authorities are a dark chapter in the history of Swiss social welfare. Records documenting the reasons behind the measures are held mainly by municipalities and cantons, although some can be found in the Federal Archives.

Dealing with the past

Enforced welfare measures represent a dark chapter in the history of Swiss social welfare. The victims of these measures included child labourers, children in homes, travellers, Yeniche children, forced adoptees, but also people committed to secure institutions - so-called "administrative wards". Finally, some were also forced to undergo abortion, sterilisation and castration.

The Confederation, cantons, municipalities and the associations and organisations involved in these measures have defined a process for dealing with this chapter of history that still affects many victims to this day. The process relates to compulsory social measures and placements carried out prior to 1981. Detailed information is available on the websites of the Federal Office of Justice and the Delegate for victims of compulsory social measures (German).

Documents held by municipalities, cantons and the Confederation

The cantons and municipalities were primarily responsible for enforced welfare measures. "Individual case files" should therefore be sought mainly in the state and municipal archives. Some documents may also be held by the Federal Archives if, for instance, organisations such as Pro Juventute were appointed to implement measures (cp. below).

The Confederation was and is involved in the matter primarily at a superordinate level. Its involvement focused on international law, legislation, supervision and coordination functions and issues of rehabilitation. The documents to be found in the Swiss Federal Archives relate mainly to these areas. The Federal Archives contain some files listed by name as the Confederation also had dealings with a number of affected persons.

Child protection

The issue of "child protection" was the topic of various international conventions at the turn of the 20th century. Switzerland also participated in the discussions. The associated documents can be found in the exhibition and convention fonds (1848-1930), including documents on the International Convention on the Protection of Children 1883 and on the International Convention on Poverty Relief and the Protection of Children 1896.

The Confederation is responsible for implementing international law, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Switzerland signed up to the Convention in 1997. Related information can be found in the message from the Federal Council, the files of the Directorate of Political Affairs and the Directorate for International Organisations (under the file reference number o.713-224). Further documents on children's rights and the supplementary protocol on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can be found at the Federal Office of Justice.


The authorities responsible for public funding first began addressing the topic of child welfare when the state adopted responsibility for welfare issues at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. Initially, the Confederation limited its activity to its role of legislative authority, for instance in the case of the Factory Act of 1877. This is reflected by the following list of legal provisions with links to the texts that are currently valid:

Legal principles from 1848 onwards can be found in the Classified Compilation of Federal Legislation and the Official Compilation (ger) of the Federal Chancellery. The more recent publications are usually accessible online. Older legal texts that were once valid are available in every larger public or legal library and also in the Swiss National Library; cp. legal texts, certificates and treaties.

The preceding administrative documents relating to these regulations can be found in the fonds of the Judiciary and Federal Division of Justice or the Federal Office of Justice, in particular in the field of legislation.

These legal regulations are the topic of numerous reports, expert studies and responses to questions such as those posed by the Office against the abuse of power by the authorities and associations with regard to cantonal legislation on the enforced commitment of persons who are deranged or in a state of neglect of 1964.

Supervision and coordination

The documents on the supervision and coordination of the penal system and involuntary commitment for children and adolescents for the period between 1944 and 1990 can be found in the fonds of the Federal Office of Justice. They include, for instance, files relating to the Intercantonal commission for care home issues, the Conference of the directors of cantonal care institutions, the Association for Swiss care homes and institutions and in general on care home issues.

Other authorities have also compiled files on occasion, for instance the Federal Department of Home Affairs on the subject of youth matters and child welfare.

Private archives of organisations

Some organisations appointed by the authorities to implement enforced welfare measures have provided documents to the Federal Archives. These documents also relate to individual cases:

Further information on the subject, in particular on file access regulations.

Tips for further research

Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with, among others, articles on  poverty, social policy, welfare and institutions in Switzerland; also on orphans, foster children, child labour and placement as well as on the topics of residency, the homeless, travellers, Yeniche people and gypsies; separate chapters on so-called fringe groups and relief organisations such as Pro Juventute. These contributions contain in part extensive literature references. (All texts in German)

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