Finland offered a state apology for the pain and abuse suffered by generations of children in its care

Children at a Finnish reform school, photographed in 1942.
Children at a Finnish reform school, photographed in 1942.
Image: SA-kuva
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Finnish state has become the latest in a series of governments to formally apologize to generations of children who suffered abuse in state-run welfare institutions.

“Your message has been heard. The long episode of silence is over. As a society, we carry our responsibility of what has happened to you,” Juha Rehula, the minister of family affairs and social services, told survivors at a ceremony on Nov. 20, according to Finland Today. Rehula offered a “deep, sincere apology” on behalf of “the Finnish government and society.”

The apology follows research (link in Finnish) carried out by the University of Jyväskylä and published earlier this year by the government, which examined mistreatment and abuse in the country’s welfare system between 1937 and 1983. Around 150,000 children are estimated to have lived in child welfare institutions, orphanages, reform schools (which were founded for children with perceived behavioral problems), or foster homes during that period. The researchers interviewed some 300 of them, all of whom had experienced abuse while living there.

“The interviewees had experiences of physical and sexual violence… Food or health care negligence, and a wide variety of humiliation,” the researchers write.

“The biggest finding in our research is that neglect, abuse and violence against children occurred in all forms of out-of-home care,” explains Pirjo Markkola, a professor in history at University of Tampere in Finland, and one of the study’s authors. “Lack of control and inspections as well as lack of resources were among the reasons why neglect and abuse were possible.”

“The apology is very significant,” she adds. “Finland does not have much of a culture of apology. This is the first large-scale public apology expressed on behalf of the state.” No decision has been made on whether compensation will be issued.

In the past few years several Western countries have owned up to the mass neglect of children by state welfare bodies. In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized to its indigenous population for the physical abuse that occurred in church-run residential schools from the mid-19th to early 20th century. That same year Australia apologized to the “Stolen Generations” of indigenous and mixed-race children taken forcibly from their families during the first decades of the 20th century; the following year, it apologized also to some 500,000 Australians who suffered neglect and abuse in orphanages and children’s homes. In 2010 the UK apologized for its role in sending over 130,000 children to former colonies—Australia among them—between the 1920s and 1960s, where many ended up suffering abuse at the hands of those who were meant to care for them. And in 2013, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny issued an apology to the thousands of women and girls who were forced to perform unpaid manual labour at Ireland’s Catholic-run Magdalene Laundries from 1922-96.