Keyvisual of the exhibition Experiences of Switzerland – Forced Fostering

Forced Fostering

Experiences of Switzerland

Installation | accessibility.time_to


State intervention in the lives of people who failed to conform to social standards was once common practice in Switzerland. Moreover, these enforced welfare measures were not restricted to adults; they also affected hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers up to the 1980s. They were taken from their parents or other carers and placed in institutions or with foster families. Many of them suffered violence and abuse, were forced to work hard and received inadequate schooling. The video installation shows people who underwent this treatment telling their personal stories, what it was like for them, how it affects them still and why they are sharing their experiences today.

The format

Sometimes objects fail to tell the full story behind formative developments in Switzerland’s recent past. That’s why the “Experiences of Switzerland” format centres on contemporary witnesses. Their fate and experiences give visitors a diverse picture of Swiss contemporary history. The theme changes annually. The format does not involve objects, opting instead for a large-format and immersive projection relaying sound through headphones as well as a station with additional information on the latest research results and the cultural-historical context of the subject.


Experiences of Switzerland – Forced fostering

National Museum Zurich | 5.7.2024 - 27.10.2024
published on 5.7.2024

Up until the 1980s, many children in Switzerland were taken away from their parents or other caregivers and placed either in institutions or with foster or adoptive families, where many were subjected to violence and abuse. In a video installation, ten witnesses tell their personal stories.

It was only in the 21st century that a dark chapter of Swiss history came to light: state intervention in the lives of people who failed to conform to social standards through so-called enforced welfare measures. The interventions affected not only adults, but also hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers up until the 1980s. They were taken away from their parents or other caregivers – often against their will – and placed in institutions or with foster families. In many cases the experience caused a great deal of suffering and left lasting emotional scars, due to physical, psychological or sexual abuse.

The forced fostering of children and teenagers in Switzerland is the theme of the second edition of ‘Experiences of Switzerland‘ at the National Museum Zurich. The format does not involve objects, opting instead for a large-format and immersive projection relaying sound through headphones as well as a station that places the subject in its cultural historical context. It centres on accounts by ten contemporary witnesses.

One of these is Armin (*1927), who recounts how his unmarried mother had to give him up for adoption. Armin spent some time at the children’s home in Thalwil before being placed with a foster family for two years. However, for cost reasons, he was then sent to the ‘Sonnenberg’ reform school in Kriens, Lucerne, where he and other boys were subjected to physical and psychological punishment. Armin was only able to take ownership of his own life at the age of 17.

Uschi (*1952) suffered an equally harrowing fate. After being taken away from her Yenish mother, she was sent to foster families, children’s homes and reform schools like Armin. After years of abuse, she was raped by her uncle at the age of 14. While he escaped without punishment, Uschi was sent to the reform school ‘zum Guten Hirten‘ in Altstätten, St Gallen. Over 3,500 pages of documents testify to the prejudice directed towards Yenish people by the authorities and by staff in the institutions.

The ten witnesses represent hundreds of thousands of victims in Switzerland. People from all parts of the country were chosen for the interviews. They are all people who have spoken out about their experiences before. It takes courage to talk about difficult or traumatic experiences in front of a camera. Their accounts and their involvement are therefore crucial in coming to terms with what happened and asserting the rights of victims.

The video installation will be open to visitors at the National Museum Zurich from 5 July to 27 October 2024, and from 17 January to 13 April 2025.

The subject of coercive welfare measures and forced fostering has been explored by researchers in recent years. The National Research Programme 76 ‘Welfare and coercion‘ (NRP 76), which looks at the impact of welfare and coercion in past, present and future, is one such example. As a next step, the Federal Office of Justice will initiate and support projects to disseminate the findings of the research. This will include a national travelling exhibition, which will open at the Musée Historique in Lausanne and visit a number of other locations up until the end of 2027. The current installation at the National Museum Zurich is not linked to this travelling exhibition, but plays a part in recounting this chapter of Swiss history.



Once admitted to an institution, people were robbed of their individual freedom and privacy and had to submit to a hierarchical organisation. They often grew up in isolation or as part of a large group and had little or no freedom. A dormitory in the ‘maison de rééducation au travail’ in Bellechasse, Sugiez, Fribourg, 1940s

Staatsarchiv Freiburg

A regimented existence

Daily life was strictly regimented and revolved around work. Friendships between residents and contact with the outside world were prohibited and letters censored. Notions of how best to bring up children only gradually started to change in the 1960s. Pestalozziheim Redlikon, Stäfa, 1955, Photo: Eduard Bodo Schucht

Baugeschichtliches Archiv der Stadt Zürich, BAZ_032975

Implementation of enforced measures

Besides the local welfare and guardianship authorities, depending on the situation, many other offices, bodies and institutions, as well as private and church-run homes, adoption agencies and foster families were involved. The various actors eased the financial burden on communities but made supervision and monitoring difficult. Two nuns with residents of a children’s home in Valais, circa 1930–1940. Photo: Paul Cattani

Swiss National Museum

Forced labour

Educating residents for work was key. The aim was to have as few people as possible reliant on state support. This applied to both children and adults, who were forced to work without pay. A workroom in the ‘Lärchenheim’ home for girls in Lutzenberg, Appenzell-Ausserrhoden. Photo: Reto Hügin


Hard labour even for children

Many homes were affiliated with farms where children were forced to carry out hard physical labour in place of expensive workers. Often, they were deprived of proper schooling. Programmes were not concerned with social advancement, and training was geared to gender roles and availability rather than individuals’ own preferences. Children and supervisors from the ‘Gott hilft‘ children’s home in Zizers, Graubünden, in a potato field, circa 1920

Stiftung Gott Hilft, Zizers


Authorities and supervisors stopped many children placed in care from having contact with their parents or relatives, leaving them with no trusted attachment figures. This lack of protection often led to the children becoming victims of verbal, psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Boys performing their evening ablutions at the common washbasins at the ‘Rettungsanstalt zur Aufnahme der verwaisten und verwahrlosten Jugend‘ ('refuge for orphaned and neglected youths‘) in Oberflachs, Aargau, 13.11.1943.

Keystone/EB (Image number 60566323 can be obtained from Keystone)

‘Children of the open road’

Several hundred thousand people were affected by the enforced welfare measures, in particular those who were poor, the Yenish, addicts, unmarried or divorced mothers and their children, orphans, and unemployed men. The aid organisation ‘Kinder der Landstrasse‘ ('Children of the Open Road') systematically separated Yenish children from their families and placed them in homes or with foster families. Alfred Siegfried, founder of the organisation, inspecting the teeth of a Yenish girl in Ilanz, 1953. Photo: Hans Staub

Keystone / Fotostiftung Schweiz (Image No 417306953 can be obtained from Keystone)

View of the exhibition

National Museum

View of the exhibition

National Museum

Swiss National Museum press contact

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Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella
  • Project direction Rebecca Sanders
  • Curatorship Michael Kempf, Rebecca Sanders, Loretta Seglias
  • Scenography Alex Harb
  • Interviews Loretta Seglias, Denise Tonella
  • Projection Maurizio Drei, Michele Innocente
  • Scientific collaboration Jasmin Mollet
  • Advisory committee Günhan Akarçay, Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Denise Tonella
  • Controlling of project Sabrina Médioni
  • Technical management Mike Zaugg
  • Exhibition construction Ira Allemann, Sophie Lühr, Marc Hägeli, Dave Schwitter, Philippe Leuthardt
  • IT | Web| Media stations Thomas Bucher, Danilo Rüttimann, Alex Baur, Thomas Bucher, Ueli Heiniger, Immensive SA, Tweaklab AG, Office 104/Nu Hoai Nam Ton
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu, Carole Neuenschwander, Alexander Rechsteiner
  • Advertising graphic Resort GmbH für Visuelle Kommunikation
  • Translations Martina Albertini, Thomas Bochet, Marie-Claude Buch-Chalayer, Bill Gilonis, Barbara Meglen, Laurence Neuffer, Maël Roumois, Geoffrey Spearing, Luca Tori

We thank the eyewitnesses for their precious participation: Alain, Armin, Danielle, Heinz, Karin, MarieLies, Mario, Michael, Sergio, Uschi

We would also like to thank all the contributors to the ‘Faces of Remembrance’ platform

For the filming in French-speaking Switzerland, we would like to thank Patrick Gyger, General Director of Plateforme 10