From generation to generation: family narratives in the context of care and coercion

Up to 1981, tens of thousands of people in Switzerland were subjected to life-altering compulsory welfare measures and forced care placements that went on to shape the lives of the generations who came after.



The ways in which society has processed the compulsory welfare measures and forced care placements practised up until the 1980s have generated a wide range of findings on the subject. Thanks to research analysis, autobiographical witness statements and media reporting, we are constantly developing a clearer picture of how these measures were implemented and legitimised, and the impact they had (and continue to have) on the lives of those affected. It’s clear that those who experienced forced care placements in childhood or adolescence grew up under very tough conditions. After years under the control of others, the transition to independence was sudden. Many of those affected lacked financial resources, education, social relationships and networks. They were shaped by experiences of worthlessness and violence, as well as rigid moral attitudes. Often, their relationships with their families of origin were broken or difficult. But the need for a home of their own remained. Weighed down by this baggage, those affected set about establishing their own families. 


In our research project, we tackled the issue of how people affected by forced placement had an impact on the lives of their descendants.

For the latter, the following questions were central: 

  • Which links did these children see between the compulsory welfare measures their parents experienced and their own lives? 
  • How did they deal with these situations in their lives?
  • What concerns do they have about potentially passing on these consequences to the next (third) generation?

For the purpose of contemporary relevance, we also examined whether and to what extent our findings were relevant to children and young people in care today.


We conducted biographical narrative interviews with 27 Swiss people whose fathers or mothers were affected by compulsory welfare measures in childhood before 1981. In an initial phase, six case studies were analysed using extracts from the biographical research. Based on the reconstructed case studies, it was possible to identify recurring phenomena and transfer mechanisms in the life stories of those surveyed. On that basis, we developed specific questions, which were examined further as part of tandem analyses and using all data material. The following topics were touched upon:

Family experiences 

  • Silence
  • Stressful experiences around belonging
  • Experiences of non-intervention in violence

Leaving the family

  • Renewed displacement
  • Leaving behind difficult situations early
  • Caring activity as a way of recreating family
  • Establishing one’s own family


People who signed up for an interview did so for an array of different reasons. They also span a very wide age range. What they had in common were painful childhood experiences that they associated with their parents’ past. They described conflict-heavy and even violent relationships with their parents, the taboo nature of their parents’ past, problems connecting with their parents and a lack of boundaries within the family.

Impact on descendants

In our interviews, the intergenerational impact of compulsory welfare measures was apparent across the entire lifespan of the next generation. This means that the children of those affected have dealt with the impact of their parents’ history on their lives from childhood through to adulthood. In our interviews, we saw that they may strongly identify with their parents’ stories, whereby they take on their parents’ pain and are emotionally consumed by it. For instance, they have had to deal with unpleasant suspicions about what happened to their parents. They also experienced feelings such as guilt, fear and empathy themselves. These feelings may be entrenched in the parent-child relationship, which was experienced as complex and characterised by an ambivalent attachment style. Some descendants struggled with these feelings right up until their parents’ deaths or even thereafter. Despite the difficult relationships, the descendants explain how meaningful it is for them to be able to contextualise themselves and their lives in the family history.

The next generation’s ways of coping 

The descendants chose different ways of approaching their specific experiences. Some left their families of origin while they were still minors or avoided specific educational paths in order to move out sooner. They have dedicated their lives to other people who had experienced trauma by becoming involved in caring activities in a personal or professional capacity, and they are concerned about how to prevent a ‘third generation’ from becoming affected.

Relevance of the findings to children and young people in care today

The ways in which society is processing the compulsory welfare measures may help descendants understand what their parents experienced and how their own difficult childhoods came to be. At the same time, our findings show that in the shape of this next generation, we are dealing with an additional group of people affected who have hitherto not been the topic of discussion. They must become a part of the public discourse in processing these issues.  

Our findings are in line with existing international findings on the intergenerational transfer of trauma. When it comes to placement in care (i.e. removing children and young people from the family home), a lot has changed in Switzerland in the past 40 years. In particular, the past decade has seen increasing discussions on the topic of quality in childcare. Nevertheless, some phenomena persist: for instance, the biographical rupture of being placed in care (and the reasons for this), issues of belonging, the stigmatisation of children and young people who experienced the care system and the tough transition into adulthood. People who experienced being placed into care are still establishing their own families under difficult conditions today. 

This study shows the importance of early recognition of the potential negative consequences of placement in care on the next generation.  It is also the starting point for our follow-up study: as part of a long-term study, we are helping children and young people who experienced the care system document their time in an institution or foster family, helping them maintain a ‘through-line’ despite the difficult circumstances in which they have grown up.

Bild einer Schwangeren gemalt von einer Intervieten im NFP 76
©Manuela Betschart (2021), Ohne Titel