Coercive decisions in Switzerland through the lens of international standards: foster care placements

The University of Geneva led the project in collaboration with experts from the University of Zurich and Institute for Studies in Children and Youth Services, School of Social Work, as well Child Identity Protection. This project was financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation within "PNR 76, national research programme welfare and coercion" under the leadership of Professor Philip Jaffé.   


The proposed research is the first study specifically exploring coercive decision making in foster care in the Swiss context through the lens of evolving international standards. In practice, international standards have progressively created frameworks and essentially limitations on coercive decision making in order to better uphold children’s rights. As such the research examined which ways and to what extent the contemporary Swiss system complied with these evolving norms. The research will specifically examined the Swiss system of removal and placement decisions in foster care by undertaking a legal analysis exploring legislation and policy as well as undertaking qualitative research to understand Swiss practices through in-depth interviews and case studies.

The Swiss system of child protection is particularly diverse and fragmented due to the small-scale federalism, which has hindered an analysis so far and thus limiting the knowledge required for any (opportunities of) improvements. The research importantly contributes to a country wide amelioration of coercive decision making in child protection.


24 January 2023, Bern : Symposium on Swiss decision-making in alternative care placements focusing on foster care

During a one day symposium, 20 researchers and practitioners* from a number of SNF projects under PNR 76 and other key actors in Switzerland presented their research results and work as noted in the agenda below. Discussions centred on strengths of the Swiss system as well as opportunities for improvement, including lessons from the past and current practices. The final session was dedicated to “brainstorming” how actors can leverage existing efforts and build on this momentum to ensure better alignment with the 2021 CRC Committee recommendations to Switzerland :

(a) Adopt national standards for the quality of alternative care, including for children living with foster families and in federal asylum centres, and encourage their application across all cantons;

(b) Enhance preventive measures to avoid discrepancies in the quality of and access to preventive services between cantons, including prioritizing social measures for families in order to prevent children, in particular those under the age of 3 years, from entering alternative care;

Following the different presentations and discussions, participants identified the following potential areas to reinforce the existing Swiss system by establishing and/or developing research, legal and practical opportunities. 


9h00 Welcome and introductions (Philip Jaffé and Mia Dambach)

9h15  Presentation of SNF Projects : Part 1

Child Neglect: Welfare practice yesterday and today (Margot Vogel Campanello and Susanna Niehaus)

How do children and parents experience child protection? (Aline Schoch and Franziska Schulmann)

Questions and discussion about potential opportunities for reform (30 mins)

10h45 Break

11h00 Presentation of SNF Projects : Part 2

Coercive decisions in Switzerland through the lens of international standards : foster care placements (Laurence Bordier, Cécile Jeannin, Alexandra Levy)

Child protection and foster care: The impact of institutions, funding, and implementation (Michael Marti)

Placements of minors in border regions: Valais and Ticino (Sandro Cattacin)

Questions and discussion about potential opportunities for reform (30 mins)

12h30 Lunch

13h45 Presentation of other related initiatives in the pipeline

PACH – Karin Meierhofer

Valais – Christian Nanchen

CIDE - Roberta Ruggiero and Simon Nehme, Inter-institutional DAS on child protection

CIDE - Elena Patrizi, PhD research on reparations in Switzerland

Questions and discussion about potential opportunities for reform (30 mins)

15h00 Short break

15h15 Group work potential opportunities for moving forward  

15h45 Presentation of ideas and discussion about priorities/opportunities

16h15  Wrap up (Mia Dambach)

16h30  End

Potential considerations/opportunities to strengthen the Swiss child protection system

Following the different presentations and discussions, participants identified the following potential areas to reinforce the existing Swiss system by establishing and/or developing :

Research opportunities

  • Federal statistics related to all forms of alternative care placements
  • Comparative studies at both international and national level on
    • residential care placements
    • sexual abuse in all forms of care settings
    • experiences of children who grew up in care
    • roles of gender and creating a better understanding/appreciation on the diversity of families
  • Broader funding base for further research (e.g. SNF, COST, etc.)
  • Mechanisms for knowledge transfer based on the research to the practitioners

Legal opportunities

  • Federal law that has a holistic approach to all child protection measures including OPE
  • Federal law on child protection procedures
  • Introduction of prevention and family support in Federal provisions
  • Family Court
  • Framework for the children’s ombudsperson
  • Clear provisions that facilitate child participation

Practical opportunities

  • A children’s ombudsperson as part of a national human rights institute structure that has adequate powers, resources and legitimacy
  • The children’s observatory across all Cantons building on existing structures such as in the Valais
  • CAPAs that are transdisciplinary and fully resourced
  • Additional specific education for practitioners in contact with children on child protection issues (e.g. teachers, doctors, police) including :
    • wide dissemination about the available CAS, new DAS being developed by UNIGE/CIDE, on children’s rights in Switzerland and Arztzurs
    • work to eliminate stereotypes
    • matrix to evaluate the risk of danger for the child
    • strengthening collaboration between all different actors to avoid working in silos
  • Improve the child’s participation through child friendly
    • resources that cover the entire procedure, services, roles of different actors and complaint mechanisms
    • spaces (e.g. where the child is interviewed, heard etc.)
    • tools to improve communication adapted to the child’s age and better consideration of his or her individual needs
  • More adequate support for families in terms of costs and services (e.g. promotion of free mediation for parent(s); targeted support for foster families / kinship carers; etc.)
*Final list of participants
  • Laurence Bordier
  • Sandro Cattacin
  • Mia Dambach
  • Gaëlle Droz-Sauthier
  • Philip Jaffé (remote as in session with the CRC Committee for the beginning)
  • Cécile Jeannin
  • Alexandra Levy
  • Michael Marti
  • Karin Meierhofer
  • Christian Nanchen
  • Simon Nehme
  • Susanna Niehaus
  • Elena Patrizi
  • Daniela Reimer
  • Roberta Ruggiero
  • Aline Schoch
  • Franziska Schulmann
  • Margot Vogel Campanello


Guide for Swiss professionals on international standards relevant to foster care prepared by UNIGE/CCRS and Child Identity Protection

Following the Federal Act on Coercive Measures for The Purpose of Assistance and Extra-Familial Care Prior to 1981, of 30 September 2016, the National Research Programme 76 Welfare and Coercion was launched in 2017. The NRP 76 “tackles the legal and social dimensions of welfare and coercion in Switzerland from a historical perspective and the perspective of the relevance of these measures to the present and the future.” This Guide is based on the NRP76 research focusing on Coercive decisions in Switzerland through the lens of international standards : foster care placements. This Guide seeks to give professionals practical guidance in implementing international standards relevant to alternative care, in order to better equip them in their daily work with children and families. Better alignment with these international standards will help ensure that removal and placement decisions are taken in the best interests of the child. Such decisions are inherently coercive as they involve interference with the private lives of families. This is why international standards provide safeguards for when such decisions may occur, such as protecting children from abuse. Whenever coercive decisions do not comply with these safeguards, they can result in “unnecessary” removal and “unsuitable” placements.

This Guide provides information on key decision-making stages in order to align them with international standards to prevent “unjustified” removal and placements in foster care with:

  • a description of international safeguards
  • references to international standards
  • indicators for compliance
  • promising practices in Switzerland and abroad

Available : English, French and German


Read more about findings, conclusions and recommendations of this research 

As this research shows, the contemporary Swiss legal framework for removal decisions and placement in foster care is aligned with international standards to a significant extent and has evolved accordingly. However, there are some gaps that require attention that may lead to undue State’s exercise of its protective power. The removal and placement decisions may become “unjustifiably” coercive whenever it is made contrary to the safeguards embedded in applicable international standards, which can be further exacerbated by a complaint mechanism that is not fit for purpose.

International standards progressively evolved starting with vague concepts of sheltering orphans in the 1924 Declaration of the Rights of the Child  to encouraging to support families at risk and removal being an exceptional measure in the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child. With time, international standards continued clarify the conditions for which the State’s protective responsibility in child welfare matters could be exercised with the introduction of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989 CRC) where children could be removed from their families in certain situations, such as abuse and neglect and placed in alternative settings. Several 1989 CRC provisions also created clear obligations on the States to support families in their caregiving role. The 2009 UN Guidelines provided a more holistic approach to the States’ responsibilities in supporting families prior to removal, which was reinforced by the 2019 UNGA resolution related to alternative care. These international standards were complemented by European norms.

The research identified the following areas in order to limit the potential for “unjustified” coercive decisions :

  • Identification of further initiatives needed to ensure parents are supported in their caregiving role to prevent “uneccessary” separation. The research showed that the support is not always accessible due to costs and availability of services. Support services that mitigate the effects of socio-economic precarity for fathers and mothers are limited. For example, legislative provisions that allow for automatic removal of parental authority from children who are parents seems to go outside permissible practices (2009 UN Guidelines, Paras. 36 and 41) instead of developing frameworks to support them.
  • Identification of measures to proactively promote reintegration of children in their families when in their best interests. Without a legislative framework in place that goes beyond maintaining contact and targeted iniitiatives that promote reintegration by addressing the initial reasons for separation, coercive removal decisions are at risk of being “unjustified”.
  • Exploration of the extent that costs of removal and alternative care placement of children can be used as part of “unjustified” coercive decisions to avoid potential systemic abuses.
  • Examining the extent that children and parent(s) are aware of access to remedies in case of potential “unjustified” coercive decisions for cases post-1981. Our research found indications that further work is needed to explain to children their rights in terms of access to remedies.

See further conclusions and recommendations.


The research team brings together seasoned researchers in both disciplinary-specific and interdisciplinary projects. They have extensive track-records of leadership, engagement with governments, international organisations, service users and service providers, professional bodies, policy makers and legislators. As such their strength is in making concrete contributions to policy, practice, ethical and legislative improvements. Members of the interdisciplinary research team are recognised leaders in adoption and foster care and bring fluency in English, Filipino, French, German and Spanish.


For general enquiries, please drop us an email:
Christina Baglietto

Christina Baglietto – has over 15 years’ experience in alternative care and adoption. She has worked in post-illegal adoptions in Guatemala, where she contributed to implementation of new domestic laws and international standards, provided training and developed SOPs for the Central Authority's multidisciplinary team. She has also contributed to an assessment of the political, legal and policy responses in adoptions in Colombia. She has provided training and technical support notably in Cyprus, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Moldova, Panama and Romania. Fluent in English, French, German and Spanish, her solid experience will ensure a rigorous approach to the research.

Laurence Bordier

Laurence Bordier – is a Swiss lawyer, with experience in corporate law and with the last decade focusing on children’s rights in alternative care and adoption. She specialises in comparative legal research, having drafted over 20 country situation analysis reviewing legislation and policy, as well as promising practices, with a critical objective of providing concrete tools to support professionals to improve their practices.

Mia Dambach

Mia Dambach – an Australian trained lawyer with 20 years’ experience of working on children’s rights, successfully leading multiple international inter-agency initiatives. She has provided technical support through evaluation missions (qualitative research) in Cambodia, Denmark, Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Ukraine, Viet Nam etc., law reforms and training in over 20 countries focusing on alternative care and adoption. She has contributed to reforms in international standards, with a focus on their application, notably through comparative research on illegal adoptions, search for origins, risks of financial contributions, kafalah conversions into adoption and as an expert to the HCCH WG on illicit adoption practices. Fluent in English, French and Filipino, she brings with her leadership, project management and research skills to ensure the practical success of this project.

Prof Philip Jaffé

Philip Jaffé - Full Professor at the University of Geneva’s Centre for Children's Rights Studies (Valais Campus, Sion) is also Member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. He has been involved in research, teaching and advocacy in the field of child rights and the protection of children for several decades. Most recently he is a co-applicant for the Cottier research and is currently responsible for an intermediary evaluation of the child protection reform of the Canton of Neuchâtel. His extensive experience in children’s rights and psychology will ensure an interdisciplinary approach to the research methodology, recommendations and outputs

Cécile Jeannin
Cécile Jeannin – is a French jurist with over 15 years’ experience in alternative care and adoption. She has undertaken qualitative research on these themes in Denmark, Ivory Coast and Mexico, as well as provided training and technical assistance to over ten countries. She led the research and publications unit at ISS/IRC by coordinating the drafting of the Monthly Review distributed to over 5000 professionals, and finalisation of over 100 country situation analysis. She is well-placed to lead the qualitative research in the French-speaking canton, given here training in political science, law and family mediation, and her fluency in English, French and Spanish.
Alexandra Levy
Alexandra Levy - Alexandra graduated in French law with a specialisation in European law. After 4 years of working in an American investment bank, she turned to teaching and obtained a diploma as a primary school teacher. She then taught for 12 years in Belgium and Poland at the primary level in various capacities. She also has experience in the print media in Poland where she ran a French-language online daily. She is currently doing an internship at Child Identity Protection as part of her Interdisciplinary Master's degree in Children's Rights at the University of Geneva.
Andreas von Känel
Andreas von Känel -  Anthropologist and consultant with more than eight years of experience in research and practice in human rights across a wide range of social and legal contexts. Most recently he has focused on children’s rights issues in Switzerland (reform related to foster and residential care in Neuchatel) and Sub-Saharan Africa (interface between forced migration, humanitarian aid and children’s rights). Expertise in the design, implementation and management of qualitative research and policy evaluations. Fluent in English, French and German, Andreas will lead the qualitative research in the German-speaking canton.


Dr Patricia Fronek

Patricia Fronek – School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University, Australia. She is an international expert, brings expertise in project management, qualitative and mixed methods research, and a long history of research and practice in ICA and national adoptions and alternative care in international settings from a social justice and human rights perspective. She has worked closely with people who have been subjected to coercive practices including families and adult adoptees and the education of practitioners in these fields.

Prof David Smolin

David Smolin – Law professor at Samford University, is considered a world leader on the topic of illegal adoptions, which include coercive practices, in light of international standards. He has served as an independent expert for the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) on ICA issues, and has served as an external expert for the ISS/IRC. He has written extensively on the topic of illegal adoptions, with particular interest in India, the main State of origin for Switzerland.


Collaboration on this interdisciplinary research will build on team members’ previous experience and track records across adoptions and alternative care to ensure impact beyond the timescale of the project. An explicit manifestation of this engagement is the establishment of the Advisory Board whose expert advice will be maintained throughout the implementation, dissemination and review stages of the project.

Dr Gael Aeby

Gaelle Aeby has a PhD in Social sciences and is a research associate at the University of Geneva and at the School of social work of Geneva. She is currently involved in the Cottier research on the experiences of children and parents in CAPA proceedings (see below) and she was recently awarded a project on foster families (Foundation Palatin). Previously, she worked on foster care institutions in Geneva, and on the transition to adulthood of care leavers. Overall, she has a strong interest in innovative research designs combining quantitative and qualitative methods, and interdisciplinary research.

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio
Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, is internationally recognised as a leading expert in human rights. She was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (2014 - 2020) and was the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe (2002 - 2012). Throughout her mandates, she has focused her attention on the fight against discrimination and violence, on the rights of the most vulnerable groups, in particular, children. She spearheaded work on three COE including the Convention on the protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. She will bring with her decades of experience in tackling sensitive issues connected to coercive decisions.
Prof Andrea Büchler
Andrea Büchler – is the Chair of Private and Comparative Law, Faculty of Law, University of Zurich. In the Swiss context, she has a special interest in all aspects of family law in an interdisciplinary context; children and law; and guardianship law. She brings with her, her interest in Comparative Law, Foreign and International Private Law and Legal Studies as Cultural Studies and Legal Gender Studies. She has led and collaborated in dozens of qualitative research projects, written countless publications and is part of multiple associations and governing board, notably PACH.
Dr Nigel Cantwell

Nigel Cantwell - a Geneva-based consultant on child protection policies, brings 40 years of international experience to the project. He coordinated civil society’s inputs into the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the 1980s.  Later, at UNICEF's Innocenti Research Centre, he headed up analysis of child protection issues for six years and then became lead consultant for developing the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. He remains UNICEF’s expert on children’s rights issues related to ICA. In 2017, the University of Strathclyde awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his work.

Prof Michelle Cottier
Michelle Cottier is Professor of private law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Geneva. Her fields of specialization include Swiss and comparative family law, sociology of law and interdisciplinarity in law. Formerly she has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Basel, a Visiting Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin and a Substitute Judge of the Appellate Court of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, Switzerland. Michelle Cottier is a member of the board of directors and one of the managers of the Cluster on Children and Youth Politics at the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights and a member of the board of directors at the Centre d'étude, de technique et d'évaluation législatives (CETEL) at the University of Geneva. She is the main applicant on the Cottier research focusing on experiences of actors in CAPA proceedings.
Dr Gaëlle Sauthier
Gaelle Sauthier is a currently presiding a Child Adult Protection Authority in the Valais. After her law degree (2009), she successfully passed her bar exam in 2013, completed training in mediation (2016) and defended her PHD in 2018, about the problematic of Child to parents’ violence. Since 2018, she collaborates in the Cottier research (see above) and is currently researching the participation of parties in procedure from 1907 to nowadays. Therefore, she has a deep knowledge of the child protection system, theoretical and practical.
Prof Stefan Schnurr
Stefan Schnurr is a Professor of Social Work. He is Head of the Institute for Studies in Children and Youth Services, School of Social Work FHNW. He published on the child removal proceedings in Switzerland (Schnurr, 2017) and has co-developed a process-manual for the dialogical-systemic assessment of the well-being of the child (Biesel et al. 2013). He co-coordinates the European Interdisciplinary Socio-Legal Care Order Decision Making Network. He is a co-applicant for the Cottier research (see above).
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