October 29, 2014 5:34 AM   Subscribe

"The authorities, explains historian Ruedi Weidmann, always insisted they were acting in the best interests of the child. [...] Families were deprived of custody if they didn't live according to a middle-class family model - unmarried mothers, or divorced people, or people who weren't able to keep their money together.

The authorities took away a lot of children and placed them in agricultural environments where they had to work really hard"

In short: let's take the child from a family that in our opinion can't provide for it and place it in a family that won't. Profit!
posted by hat_eater at 6:01 AM on October 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Who thought 'Hoarding Nazi gold' would be #2 on the 'Our Secret Shame' list.
posted by PenDevil at 6:04 AM on October 29, 2014 [23 favorites]

It's like a Neoliberal dream!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:28 AM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Das isch nit dy Ätti, du hesch kei Ätti, du bisch nume dr Bueb! From "Der Bauernspiegel" by Jeremias Gotthelf. It's heartwrenching.
posted by Tanjit at 6:28 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound like all of them were unwanted or discarded children at all (a terminology used which I think doesn't fit a large portion of these cases from the sound of it). Many were stolen. Let's use the word for it.

"And some of it was moral, a way to discipline the lower classes."

And let's face it, we still removal either by force or by authority figures pressuring poor families to "do what's best" as a solution to poverty. The root attitude that leads to things like this is gross and ignorant and shameful. The poor don't need their children removed by privileged people who don't actually want to work to fix poverty and inequality. Or, in cases like this, give two fucking shits about the actual welfare of children whatsoever- not when profits and the desires of the already privileged can be provided for under the guise of "helping" or "moralizing" the bad poor families.
posted by xarnop at 6:43 AM on October 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

"My childhood was stolen from me"

No words, just sad.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:43 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let's call it slavery, because honesty is good.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:45 AM on October 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

Just like the Home Children from the UK, sent as cheap labourers to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
posted by scruss at 7:05 AM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

America too.
posted by clavdivs at 7:14 AM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was reading this piece this morning. It's just heartbreaking, and especially so given the lip-service paid to providing a proper foster system when everyone involved must have surely known what was really going on.
Social workers did make visits. David Gogniat says his family had no telephone, so when a social worker called a house in the village to announce that she was coming, a white sheet was hung out of a window as a warning to the foster family. On the day of this annual visit David didn't have to work, and was allowed to have lunch with the family at the table. "That was the only time I was treated as a member of the family… She sat at the table with us and when she asked a question I was too scared to say anything, because I knew if I did the foster family would beat me."
An exhibition which opened five years ago, and is still running today at the Ballenburg open-air museum, awoke modern Switzerland with a shock to its dark past of child exploitation. The man behind it, Basil Rogger, says that from the 1920s on there was a constant flow of pamphlets, autobiographies, and newspaper articles about the plight of the contract children. Their history was not a secret. If you wanted to know about it you could.
That poor boy - and all of the others - being put through this performance of being treated like one of the family for an afternoon, surrounded by adults who knew it was a lie.
posted by Catseye at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is indeed sad and awful, but presenting it as something particular to Switzerland is misleading and inaccurate. 'Child-Saving' - as it was called in the 19thC - has a long history. Thomas Barnardo's organisation started this way in the 1870s, sending British children from working-class homes deemed inadequate by his middle-class Evangelical standards, to Canada, Australia & South-Africa. In the US, Charles Loring Brace, was doing the same via the Children's Aid Society (CAS) and sending poor kids from New York to work on farms. Both Brace and Barnardo were convinced that what they were doing was providing children with appropriate care (i.e. within families rather than institutions), and this justified removing children from their existing families. The receiving families varied considerably in the way they treated the children, and the sending organisations did little to guide or monitor them (though it does seem that the CAS was marginally better about this and tried to encourage that the children were sent to school). It's pretty clear that from the perspective of the 'child-savers' this was about saving souls from degenerate urban life, while from the perspective of the struggling farmers who received them, this was about cheap labour and survival. Either way, the children had little control over their situation.
posted by melisande at 7:17 AM on October 29, 2014 [17 favorites]

Save The Children -- And Collect Valuable Coupons!
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:25 AM on October 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm also curious how unique this is to Switzerland. It seems like a badly administered foster care program and I could imagine similar stories in many European countries. Also a little reminded of Australia's Stolen Generations, also the US treatment of Native American children. Same sort of state paternalism, "we know better than the parents", followed by abuses and lack of monitoring.

Despite the modern efficient reputation Switzerland is remarkably rural and backwards in some ways. Women didn't have the right to vote until 1959–1972 with one backward canton holding out until 1990.
posted by Nelson at 7:31 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Similar things happened in Iceland. Though there was also a practice of children being sent by their parents summer-long to remote farms to "learn how to work." My mother has had to deal with back pains to this day from having been overworked as a young teen on a farm.

I actually went to a farm one summer too in my teens, but that was at the farm of relatives of mine and it was in the 90s, after the mechanization of farms had taken place. Mostly I just herded cows and looked after ducks, which was pretty idyllic, all told.

But that isn't anything like the kids who were taken from their families either because of family problems or juvenile delinquency and sent to farms that were in effect prisons. The stories that have come back from those places are just as horrible as the stories from Switzerland.

And like in Switzerland authorities knew and either turned a blind eye or colluded with the abusers. Pediatricians knew that children had been abused, some through overwork, others by beatings and some sexually. They warned their friends not to send their children to the farms of non-relatives (which wasn't always safe, but studies show it was safer on the whole) but most of society wasn't informed about this and authorities did nothing to stop it.

I wouldn't be surprised if it had happened in most parts of the world as rural areas emptied of people who moved to cities. Farms needed to replaced the labor and the upper classes were convinced that urban living was leading to degeneracy. The solution was sending children to work on farms, just like in the old days. But the difference was that there were much fewer adults around to take part in the work so children and teenagers were expected to do everything. And, of course, many of those same children were easy prey to abusers of all stripes.
posted by Kattullus at 7:32 AM on October 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

Save The Children -- And Collect Valuable Coupons! stickycarpet, that's the worst thing I've ever favorited.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:38 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would almost describe him as a tyrant...

The restraint of these people amazes me. Just reading about it set me off on a series of baroque revenge fantasies.
posted by Segundus at 7:54 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Who thought 'Hoarding Nazi gold' would be #2 on the 'Our Secret Shame' list.

Just wait 'til they find out what makes their chocolate so good!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:00 AM on October 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Actually, when I was reading this all I could think was "this will give Cameron some ideas, won't it"....The contemporary US has a prison system and a school-to-prison pipeline for dealing with the children of the poor, but this sort of thing seems very much in line with UK benefits "reform", making people give up their spare bedrooms, moralizing about scroungers and chavs, etc.
posted by Frowner at 8:53 AM on October 29, 2014

Women got the vote in 1971

posted by nev at 9:24 AM on October 29, 2014

This is incredibly sad, makes me want to go home and hug my son.
posted by signal at 9:38 AM on October 29, 2014

A saying going down the generations among my in-laws in Ohio about farmhands:

A boy is worth a whole boy. Two boys are worth half a boy. Three boys is worth no boy at all.

Google finds lots of versions of the adage. And they seem to describe areas where a boy had to be old enough to fit this description to be hired as a farmhand. So this kind of brutality was not universal.

Of course, I'm still talking about 14 year olds turned away from their homes because their parents weren't sure they could feed them. The world is cruel enough without this kind of thing, and it's a pretty low bar merely to refrain from making it crueler.
posted by ocschwar at 10:23 AM on October 29, 2014

I'm also curious how unique this is to Switzerland. It seems like a badly administered foster care program and I could imagine similar stories in many European countries.

Not at all unique, and as people have already pointed out there were similar programs (or worse ones) in the UK, US, Ireland and... well, I'd imagine much of the Western world.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:54 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

So as your local Swiss Mefite, I guess it's my job to list you some other awful bits of recent Swiss history:
  • Forcible sterilizations (in some cases probably of the mothers of the stolen children) went on till 1987.
  • Federal police kept secret files on leftists, trade unionists, and foreigners. About 900'000 of them in a country of seven million. This went on till 1989, or maybe 2005, or maybe it's still going on. There was also a secret, autonomous "stay-behind army" - but you guys all know about Operation Gladio, right?
  • And it took till the 80s for us to even dare talking openly about quite how many people we'd turned back at the border during World War II.
Switzerland is... not very good at the past.
posted by Zarkonnen at 2:15 PM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not to deflect Switzerland's culpability, but it has long seemed to me that this kind of treatment of children was the norm pretty much everywhere until the 20th century, namely in the latter decades of the 20th century. Kids had always been considered a kind of property and cheap labor force; I doubt there was any place on Earth in, say, the year 1500 that had an enlightened view of childhood (or even a concept of "childhood").

We bemoan how children today are overly-coddled and protected by helicopter parents far longer than they should be...that may often be the case, but surely there's a sane middle ground between those two extremes. If forced to choose, I'd choose the helicopter parent.
posted by zardoz at 5:04 PM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Things have improved, but I wouldn't even say this is a thing we should totally dismiss as Of The Past. I mean, not with Switzerland in particular, but with society's attitude towards the children of the poor. For... I don't know, maybe ten years or so, the church I grew up in kept sending mission groups down to an orphanage in Ciudad Juarez. Guy I grew up with went down there to be a missionary. All those poor kids. It wasn't until fairly late in this process that I started hearing from people that, actually, most of those kids had families. It's just, their families "couldn't care for them", so they'd sent them to this place. And I kept thinking: If we'd just all sent money to Juarez and they'd distributed it to families in need to pay for things like food and clothes and school supplies, how much further would it have gone than carting a dozen people down once a year for a week to put a fresh coat of paint on this place?

The heavy implication was that the kids were Better Off. So far as I know, it's still operating; that church stopped sending groups down some years ago, though.

I know it's also been said that a lot of the children available for international adoption have living parents, too. But, again, "unable to care for them". I'm sure many of those kids at least end up with families who treat them like their own children, but there was a big push among conservative Christians awhile back to adopt from places like Africa as a form of evangelism, again, and there were stories that came out of that about kids being treated like servants. But even without the slave labor part, the notion that children should ever be somewhere other than with parents who want them is abhorrent.
posted by Sequence at 7:16 PM on October 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

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