It's a story family to most Australians, children forcibly removed from their families supposedly in their best interest. In Switzerland - their own dark chapter in social engineer something now being revealed. For generations children and teenagers were taken from their parents and forced on to labour farms or even prisons for unwed teen mothers. Now the survivors are fighting for recognition. David Brill went to Switzerland to find out more.
REPORTER: David Brill
URSULA BIONDI: I nearly committed suicide in those times. It was too hard for a teenager.
Ursula Biondi is taking me to the Hindelbank women's prison.
URSULA BIONDI: Can you just see the first block, the first floor? I was there. It was in 67 until 68. I was here. I had to live here for about one year and one week and this - all of the experiences in here... marked me for life. It's criminal what they have done with teenagers in those times.
Until 1981 the Swiss state sent thousands of teenagers to places like Hindelbank for re-education. Accused of being rebellious or promiscuous they were held indefinitely without trial.
URSULA BIONDI: And the reason was because at 17, I was pregnant, in the 5th month - and it wasn't allowed to have children without being married.
REPORTER: And you ended up here?
URSULA BIONDI: Yes. For educational reasons, for moral reasons. Number 3 there.
REPORTER: Up there?
URSULA BIONDI: Yes. I nearly gave birth for my first child in this cell there. At two o'clock in the morning, I woke up with a terrible pain in my belly - I was scared - I was terrified because there was no light.
When the baby arrived it was taken away. After three months of protest, Ursula was finally reunited with her son.
URSULA BIONDI: Because I was screaming and fighting all the time. But like a fool, I nearly lost my mind here. So many lives damaged and destroyed.
Ursula is far from alone. Hundreds of thousands of children were victims of Switzerland's harsh social policies. Young people were who taken from their homes. Many ended up physically and mentally abused.
HUGO ZINGG (Translation): I walked up here every day to go to school, to the dairy four times a day. And this is when I felt free.
Hugo Zingg is making a painful journey back to the place he once called home. This is the village of Vattenveal high in the Alps where Hugo was sent to work when he was just six years old.
HUGO ZINGG (Translation): Here on this farm.... The custom was to beat, with your leather belt, beat, beat.
Hugo was a Verdingkind or contract child, one of thousands sent to farms to work. The policy lasted for more than 100 years, up until the 1950s.
HUGO ZINGG (Translation): I was beaten for everything, beaten, beaten, beaten. Always beatings, I was simply at fault.
The abuse went on for a decade. Of the five other Verdingkinder on the farm four ended up committing suicide.
HUGO ZINGG (Translation): Today, in a way, I am happy and pleased that I survived all this, that I don't have to say thank you to anyone.
LORETTA SEAGLASS, HISTORIAN: Going through all these stories, the lack of love. Not being loved, not being part of a family.
Historian Loretta Seaglass has interviewed hundreds of former contract children as part of a touring exhibition about their lives.
REPORTER: Why were the children disregarded in Switzerland?
LORETTA SEAGLASS: At the beginning of the phenomenon it was poverty. Switzerland was a very poor country up until after World War II and the communities had to look after their poor people. But it was a social disciplinary thought behind it as well, because they wanted poor people and especially poor children to learn how to work, not to become poor again as an adult.
The policy also targeted children from broken homes, single parent families or unwed mothers.
LORETTA SEAGLASS: The range of what was morally OK until the 1970s was very narrow. Meaning if you did not fit, detention was one possibility, putting you in an institution without having committed a crime.
WOMAN (Translation): Is it your birthday soon?
Outside the exhibition Albert Elbe is catching up with friends, who are also former contract children. Albert was three months old when he was taken away from his 17-year-old unmarried mother.
ALBERT ELBE (Translation): The problem was that I never got to know my mother, I have never seen her. I met my father when I was 24 - he didn't want to know, his second wife was not interested either.
When Albert was only five he was sent to work on a farm.
ALBERT ELBE (Translation): On Sunday I had to go to church and listen to the sermon, and when I came home I would have to repeat the sermon to the farmer. I had to tell the farmer and if I could not remember, I had to kneel on the sharp edge of a bit of firewood. And then the farmer would take off his leather belt, and with it he beat me repeatedly.
LORETTA SEAGLASS: A lot of them are still dealing with what they have experienced today. Some had the chance to get professional help, some didn't. Some need to talk about it and it's good for them. Others can't talk about it.
MOVIE, 'Der Verdingbub' (Translation): Open the door, don't make it harder, Mrs Durrer.
It's been a taboo topic for decades, but now the disturbing story of the Verdingkinder has been thrust into the public glare with the release of a confronting film on the subject. The Contract Boy had phenomenal success at the Swiss box office. In Zurich, Ursula Biondi wants to introduce me to Maria Magdalena, close friends since they were both imprisoned in Hindelbank.
URSULA BIONDI (Translation): But now to another question.
Removed from her family as a child, Mady as she is known had grown up in an orphanage where she was habitually tortured.
MARIA MAGDALENA (Translation): The head into the water until you are almost drowned, out again, and back in, out again, for hours. You had to find a way.... As I said, your soul has to leave your body so you can survive all this in the long run.
Like Ursula, Mady was 17 and pregnant when she arrived at Hindelbank, but unlike Ursula, Mady was forced to give up her baby for adoption.
MARIA MAGDALENA (Translation): I have left all this behind me... I've more or less dealt with the home and all that...and that was good for me. But what I cannot accept is the following, that we who were robbed of our children should be punished for the rest of our lives for a policy and the crimes committed by the bureaucracy. That's not on.
BERNETTE GECHTER (Translation): Well, I was brought here by the police... in a police car.
One of the most shocking stories I heard was that of Bernette Gechter, I met her outside Veal Psychiatric hospital where she was committed in 1972.
BERNETTE GECHTER (Translation): You come to Wil. They give you medication to keep you quiet. You come to the gate...It's so demeaning. You bathe in the same tub with twelve others to make sure you're deloused. They take everything from you, you're left with nothing. Nothing. You have no one to help you.
When she was 7 years old, Bernette's strictly religious foster parents took her to a doctor believing she was sexually active. She was diagnosed with a brain disorder and from that point on her childhood became a nightmare.
BERNETTE GECHTER (Translation): That has dogged me all my life. And the foster parents believed it and based on this I was taken to a psychiatrist in Zurich and later quite often to Wil, where they treated my brain...it's terrible to think of...where they put several electrodes on my head and pushed some wires up my nose...to perform electroshock therapy to find out if I was normal or not.
Bernette continued to receive treatment until the age of 18, when she fell pregnant. She was brought to this hospital and presented to a room of doctors.
BERNETTE GECHTER (Translation): I always felt as if I were up before a judge, as if I were a criminal and had killed someone and they had to decide what to do about this crime.. that is when they suddenly decided I wasn't normal, that I was mad and had brain damage.
Bernette was told she was unfit to be a mother. She was committed to hospital. Her baby was aborted and she was sterilised.
BERNETTE GECHTER (Translation): In the old days no one would listen to you, you were so alone, imprisoned, with nowhere to go.
Last year, Bernette spoke as a victim of forced sterlliesation at the European Council in Paris.
BERNETTE GECHTER (Translation): You could have heard a pin drop in there. I'm not sure if they cried, but they had sad faces and I found it...Yes, it was overwhelming for me.
URSULA BIONDI: Still we have thousands of people between 55 and 90 or up wards who still are suffering about depression, drugs, alcohol and a lot of victims suicide.
Switzerland's Verdingkinder are waiting for a national apology. But for Ursula Biondi and those sent to prison for so-called immoral behaviour there has been an acknowledgment of injustice.
EVELINE WIDMER-SCHLUMPF, BUNDESRATIN (Translation): I want to apologise formally in the name of the Federal Government that they were taken into administrative custodial care without a court hearing.
Ursula says an apology isn't enough.
URSULA BIONDI: The damage is enormous. We the victims ask for a historical report and financial compensation.
REPORTER: Is compensation likely?
LORETTA SEAGLASS: Compensation is not likely, no.
REPORTER: Why not?
LORETTA SEAGLASS: This is a very difficult issue and all the politicians don't really want to talk about money. So I think if you have injustice being done, there needs to be some kind of reparation.
MARIA MAGDALENA (Translation): After Hitler, people had the opportunity to get at the truth. Why don't we? Our Switzerland, which always wants to be goodie-goodie, has so many skeletons in its cupboard. With young people, kids, it isn't on. It can't be allowed.
MARK DAVIS: It's a program of heartache tonight. David talks more on our website about why it's taken so long for this story to become public. There is also extra information on the campaign to gain recognition for those affected.
Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN
Stills courtesy of Verdingkinder Reden
'Der Verdingbub' film excerpt courtesy of C-Films
15th May 2012