Questions and answers

Why does Switzerland need an Ombuds Office?

Children’s rights continue to be insufficiently applied and implemented in Switzerland. It is essential to improve this situation. This view is confirmed by the Switzerland Country Report on the Implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is only by through access to child-friendly legal procedures that children and youth will be able to develop resilience and achieve self-efficacy in their living situations, which are often beset with problems. Such experiences can translate into sustainable positive results in their lives. The Ombuds Office addresses this gap by offering children legal advice in age-appropriate language and by intermediating between them and the professionals who become involved in their situation. Accordingly, the new Ombuds Office serves as a necessary complement to existing local and cantonal ombuds offices and to key psychological and social support sites such as for youth or for adults.


Shouldn’t on-site professionals be the ones to implement children’s procedural rights?

Yes, and local professionals increasingly perform this service. An ombuds office is only necessary in situations where children’s procedural rights could not be ensured. In a perfect world, the Ombuds Office would reach the point of abolishing itself. Unfortunately, such a world is nearly impossible to achieve. Until an ideal situation can be created, the Ombuds Office provides support to a legal system that is still learning how to improve its assistance to children in the application and implementation of their rights.


How does the Ombuds Office work?

The Ombuds Office is an office for children. It reinforces children’s resilience  and helps them develop self-efficacy as they learn how to be successful and independent in overcoming difficult situations and challenges without suffering sustained damage. Only in this way can children and youth succeed in breaking free from the vicious cycle of helplessness and overwhelming that frequently ensnares them due to their difficult living conditions. In concrete terms, this means that legal advice takes place at the point when a child contacts the Ombuds Office. This includes situational analysis, child-oriented information and the presenting of recommendations to the child. While several sessions are usually required, these always take place with the same contact person. In consultation with the child, competent caregivers or other professionals involved  are recommended and contacts between these professionals and the child are arranged. This is can only occur where the Ombuds Office has a legal right to access the child’s information and the professional is released from data protection obligations. It may be necessary, moreover, to provide triage to local specialist offices such as the racism office or the victim assistance services of the Child and Adult Protection Authority.

The Ombuds Office is further tasked with elaborating on the skills and knowledge of professionals. This becomes especially important since the decisions and measures taken on behalf of children must be presented in terms that can be understood by them so that the effect of these actions can be sustained. In the end, the reinforcement of children through the assurance of their rights as children results in greater protection of children and youth. Moreover, the societal and financial problems that are often the consequence of children’s difficult circumstances can be avoided.


Can a national Ombuds Office support children and youth in their localities?

Yes. Children’s rights themselves as well as access to the legal system are protected at the national level. Children’s procedural rights are the same throughout Switzerland. We guarantee access across Switzerland by working in all national languages, recruiting digital natives where they can be found – via chat rooms, for example – and providing barrier-free access to the Ombuds Office. 

The United Nations-enunciated Rights of the Child require physical access to advising sites. When these came into force in 1990, however, digital spaces or advanced on-line communication did not yet exist. The speed at which all this has changed is well known. It is important that we keep a finger on the pulse of today’s youth and make use of the latest technology. In this way, we can provide low-threshold assistance to children and youth throughout Switzerland from a central location.

The national presence is also important because many family situations cut across cantons – for example, a mother who lives in Zurich while the father resides in Geneva. Under a national approach, inter-cantonal cases receive rapid and uncomplicated assistance. In principle, the goal of our legal advice is always to involve the caregiver or professional  who is nearest to the child’s residence.


Does the Ombuds Office also become involved with complaints? Does it lodge its own complaint procedures?

No. These are handled under our legal system at the various levels of adjudication and by legal representatives. Should appeals proceedings become necessary, we recommend that the court or authority provide free legal representation to the child that also includes the necessary authority to inspect files. As an Ombuds Office, we operate independently, objectively, transparently and in a non-partisan manner. If we were to file complaints, we would be required to take a side and could no longer act as an intermediary. While we guarantee the right to be heard and to have legal representation, we are very clearly and intentionally not adjudicators. Prompt solutions, not legal proceedings, are central to the child, especially where legal action can be avoided by intermediation.


The UN recommends that the Ombuds Office assume the tasks of monitoring and investigation. What is your opinion about this idea?

Just as we reject the notion that the Ombuds Office should file its own complaints, we also believe that it is a bad idea for us to take over the tasks of monitoring and investigating. Successful intermediation requires the trust of children and professionals. This is inconsistent with monitoring and the conducting of investigations. What we view as essential, on the other hand, are regular reports to the cantons, the federal government and the parliament. These should result in recommendations for action on the further improvement of children’s rights. These must recognize that the legal system continues its learning process.


In Switzerland, approximately 100 thousand children and youth ages 18 and younger come into contact with the legal system. How and where do they learn about the existence of your institution?

In a variety of ways. On one hand, children and youth find their way to us on their own – for example, via the internet or with a telephone call. Alternatively, we are recommended by caregivers or professions from within the child’s environment – for example, by grandparents, foster families, social services, residential home directors, school social workers or paediatricians. Children and youth are frequently referred to us via triage from other psychological or social contact points such as 147 by Pro Juventute.


The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has pointed out repeatedly that training on children’s rights should be included as a mandatory module in school curricula. Are children’s rights in Switzerland in trouble?

We share the belief that children’s rights should be a mandatory part of schooling. We regret that the opportunity was missed in Instructional Plan 21 to bring children’s rights explicitly into the educational program. A basic element of effective child protection is for children and youth to understand their rights. Only children who know their rights are able to seek help early.. In Switzerland we are among the active guiding agencies and professionals who inform children and youth of their rights and point out existing contacts such as the ombuds offices.


In what environments in Switzerland is child welfare especially at risk?

Besonders gefährdet sind Kinder dann, wenn sie sich in Systemen befinden, in denen sie in einer unterlegenen Position sind und sich nicht frühzeitig äussern oder sich Hilfe holen können. Dies ist vor allem der Fall, wenn sie physischer, psychischer oder sexueller Gewalt ausgesetzt sind, sie vernachlässigt werden oder besondere Gefährdung im digitalen Raum erfahren. Sie sind in einem Teufelskreis gefangen. Nur durch gelebte Partizipation durch Fachpersonen ist es möglich, frühzeitig zu erfahren, dass Kinder gefährdet sind. Die Richter:innen oder die Behördenmitglieder können ohne Partizipation gar nicht im übergeordneten Kindesinteresse entscheiden. Genau deshalb ist das Recht auf Gehör so wichtig. Nur so schaffen die Kinder den Weg heraus aus der Ohnmacht.


What are the main concerns expressed by children?

Reports are frequently issued concerning child protection. On one hand, these involve placements – including relocations or placements back to the original family. On the other hand, they focus on experiences of psychological, physical or sexual violence or neglect. We also frequently receive calls from children dealing with family law. Especially in cases of divorce and separation, visitation or child custody rights are emphasised. We also see an increase in the field of education  law, where children and youth are affected by expulsion from their school. Somewhat less frequent are reports dealing with youth criminal law, criminal law itself or asylum and alien law.


In your view, what are the most urgent concerns?

We want to provide children and youth with assistance at an early point, improve our prevention efforts, help prevent escalations and avert risks to child welfare. This is the primary focus of our work, and it is the motivation that drives us every day to work passionately to promote children’s rights.


How do you see the future of the Ombuds Office for Children’s Rights?

The private foundation that began to provide service in January 2021 constitutes a transitory solution that we hope will remain in force through 2025. It is to be replaced in 2026 by the public ombuds office. The current approach guarantees children and youth immediate protection by filling gaps. It also promotes the ongoing improved implementation of children’s rights in the next five years and ensures the transfer of knowledge to the future ombuds office. The foundation has funding from the Federal Government and several cantons as well as from Zurich Insurance and the Z Zurich Foundation and from other foundations. It serves as a de facto pilot project and model scheme for the future public ombuds office, which will also be national in scope, independent and multilingual – ideally with central direction of branches in the three regions of the country. Naturally, the rights of children will remain the focus of the public ombuds office.


How should we conceive of the collaboration with other contact offices?

The Swiss Ombuds Office for Children’s Rights is not alone on the battlefield. Rather, it closes a gap in the network of the various contact and advising offices available to children and youth in Switzerland who find themselves in situations of need.

Many children contact the well-known child and youth advisory service 147 operated by Pro Juventute, which provides counsellors 24 hours per day, seven days per week. They welcome children, help them regain composure and counsel them on how to improve their situation.

Whenever legal questions are involved, the children are referred to the Ombuds Office. This has led to the development of our close collaborative relationship with Pro Juventute.