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State apology forthcoming for Finland’s reform school children

In the early twentieth century, Finland created a system of reform schools in which children that were judged delinquent were taken from their families to do agricultural work in the countryside. Even though the institution was called a reform school, there was far more hard labour than schooling taking place, and hundreds who lived through the ordeal relate harrowing childhood experiences. Finland’s government announced on Friday that it will issue a formal apology to these former reform school students, a rare and long-awaited act of contrition.

A photo from the Vuokkiniemi reform school, year unknown. Image: SA-kuva

Heino Saaristo is pleased: Friday was his 65th birthday, but more importantly, it was also the day that Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health announced that it would be presenting an official state apology to people who had been treated unjustly in its reform school system. 

When he was just 12 years old, Saaristo and his three brothers were sent to a reform school in Muhos, about 400 kilometres away from his hometown of Eno in eastern Finland.

The reason for their transfer was one of the brother’s occasional school truancy. Saaristo only attended the reform school for one year, but he says that even that was too much.

“The place was full of children just like us. The majority were just from bad homes,” he said.

Referring to the Finnish word for the schools koulukoti (school home), Saaristo said, “It wasn’t a school and it was nothing like a home. It was institution of destruction.”

“Once the doors closed, we were no longer people. We were prisoners and we were expected to do forced labour. Child slavery, in effect,” he said.

Saaristo says the state apology is very important to him, proving that his shame is not only his own.

“It frees me from the feeling. In a way, the shame lies with the state and the system it created.”

How did it happen?

Finland didn’t enact compulsory education for children until 1921, one of the last European countries to do so. Until then, schooling was voluntary, leading to the development of a network of primary schools in towns, but virtually nothing organized for children in the countryside.

According to researcher Kaisa Vehkalahti, Finland was overtaken by a fear of urbanization in the early twentieth century. Instead of helping children adapt to the changing urban milieu, many children were ‘saved’ from city life and transplanted to rural surroundings. This ‘agrarian solution’ was promoted in Finland’s system of state reform schools until as late as the 1960s.

Along with the principles of the day, Finnish children that were sent to the schools were expected to do hard labour to keep them from inappropriate and illegal behaviour. In effect, their work in gardens and fields left them with little time for studies. Sometimes the ‘schools’ had less than two hours of instruction per day.

Professor: Apology very necessary

Finland’s Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Juha Rehula will officially present the state apology on November 20, Universal Children’s Day, which marks the day the UN Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

Vesa Puuronen, professor of sociology at Oulu University, says an official apology is important.

“It is particularly significant for people who have been treated poorly in different foster care facilities. They feel they have been labelled as guilty, with no justice from the state or the authorities,” Puuronen said.

In effect, the state is admitting that an injustice has taken place, the professor said.

“The state is also of the opinion that it is they who acted wrongly, not the people affected.”

Sweden and Norway have paid compensation

The apology concerns thousands of Finnish residents, Puuronen estimated.

“There are still thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people alive that have lived in these institutions,” he said. 

The Finnish government has not, however, announced plans to offer the victims of mistreatment financial compensation. In Sweden and Norway, where similar reform schools existed, the state has awarded people who lived through the trauma accordingly.

“It is my opinion that the people in Finland should be paid compensation,” Puuronen said.

“In practice, these people were deprived of their liberty and were subject to beatings and abuse. This damaged their chances of success later in life, along with their ability to live a balanced and happy life,” he said.

“They have lived through things that shouldn’t have happened.”

Minister: Today's reform schools like home

Minister Rehula confirmed to Yle on Friday that the government had no plans to compensate the people in question at present.  Rehula was also asked about today’s reform school capacity to ensure a safe childhood.

“We can’t have but one goal: to provide the best developmental environment. It must be as much like a home as possible, and above all from the child’s point of view,” Rehula said.

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