NRP “Welfare and Coercion” identifies areas for improvement in Swiss social policy

© SNF, Marco Finsterwald

People in precarious situations are not always guaranteed a right to participation and self-determination. This is the finding of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s "Welfare and Coercion" National Research Programme (NRP 76).

Anyone who finds themselves in difficulty and needing help in Switzerland will be supported by the social welfare system. Child and adult protection, social services, victim counselling and other offices provide assistance for children and adolescents, people who are sick or have a disability, migrants and refugees. However, the social security system and the welfare state bear a historical burden. Several hundred thousand people were affected by compulsory social measures and placements in the 20th century, and many were victims of mistreatment, abuse and economic exploitation.

The social welfare system carries this legacy. Improvements have now been made in many areas. However, legitimate measures are still associated with coercion, depending on the situation, or are perceived as coercion by those affected. Sometimes their rights are disregarded. This was shown by the results of the "Welfare and Coercion" National Research Programme (NRP 76) carried out by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) involving around 150 researchers.

Too little self-determination for those affected

The social welfare system has changed over the last fifty years. Child and adult protection has been modernised on a legal level, the focus is on the best interests of the child, and minors have a stronger position in legal proceedings. Switzerland has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, the cantonal responsibilities and the complex organisation of authorities are resulting in legal inequalities, especially with regard to the opportunities for those affected to be involved. For the latter, there is often no transparency or legal certainty if, for example, they cannot understand the role of the specialist making a home visit for clarifications.

NRP 76 has concluded that child and adult protection procedures should be harmonised at federal level. Access to the relevant information must be simplified. This includes improving information about rights and obligations, as well as the removal of administrative and linguistic barriers to ensure the involvement of those affected, protect their integrity and promote their autonomy.* They should be able to develop their own ideas about what would be helpful for them. Child and adult protection must be organised in such a way that the views and concerns of those affected are taken into account more. Their self-determination must be consistently promoted.

Official interventions can have lifelong negative effects

People who were placed in homes as infants in the late 1950s often came from immigrant families or were the children of unmarried mothers. They have more health problems and a lower life expectancy than children who were never placed in a home, right up until late adulthood. Their cognitive, motor, social and emotional development was also delayed, as NRP 76 shows.** Interventions by authorities can therefore have a lifelong negative impact and should therefore be carried out with caution. All children should have equal educational and career opportunities, and vulnerable young people such as unaccompanied minor refugees must be supported as they transition into adult life and gain independence.

The care of children, adolescents and adults in precarious situations is based on a funding mix that may involve the federal government, cantons and municipalities simultaneously. If the decision lies with the municipalities, which are also responsible for social services, for example, fewer external placements are ordered than if the decision is made by the cantonal administrative authorities or courts. The results of NRP 76 suggest that funding should be regulated in such a way that disincentives are avoided and sufficient resources are available. The responsible organisations should be funded in a way that ensures that the people they support can live their lives with as much self-determination as possible.

This includes raising awareness among specialists undergoing education and training in disability care or psychiatry, for example, of the stigmatising effects of their work, such as when making psychological and medical diagnoses. To this end, they need time and financial resources in their day-to-day work.

NRP 76 identifies areas needing improvement in social policy

Official interventions not only affect those directly involved, but also their descendants. Parents unknowingly passed on and continue to pass on their traumatic and traumatising experiences. “To prevent a third generation from being affected after the second, there is a need for easy access to free support,” says Alexander Grob, President of the NRP 76 Steering Committee. This includes advice and help with processing and documenting their life stories. Public recognition of their suffering also remains especially necessary.

NRP 76 identifies weaknesses in social policy. "I hope that the authorities will tackle these problem areas together with those affected and the experts in order to consider equal opportunities and their institutional prerequisites, and to make improvements," says Grob. “Our welfare system has learned a lot in recent years. Now it’s time to put this knowledge into practice.”

National Research Programme “Welfare and Coercion – Past, Present and Future” (NRP 76)

In 2017, the Federal Council mandated the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to conduct a research programme on the subject of welfare and coercion. By the end of 2023, around 150 researchers had analysed the characteristics, mechanisms and effects of Swiss welfare policy and practices in 29 projects with a budget amounting to 18 million Swiss francs.

The researchers identified causes of welfare practices that impaired the integrity of the persons affected and the conditions for those that protected their integrity, and analysed the effects on the people involved. The results of NRP 76 have been published in three thematic book volumes and in the final synthesis "Interventions in people's lives" with ten main ideas.