IASSW AIETS logoSocial Dialogue Magazine
article 7 main image
Auxilio Social (Social Aid) propaganda. Reads: “Social Aid protects children”. The dictatorship single party (Falange) symbol is on the left. Image from feminicidio.net (free to use under non-commer-cial creative commons licence)

María Inés Martínez Herrero,
Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, University of Essex, United Kingdom

Facing a dark and unknown chapter of the history of social work in Spain: social work in times of Franco’s eugenics and stolen babies

The first Spanish school of social work was founded in 1932 in the city of Barcelona during the Spanish II Republic (1931- 1939), which historians consider the first democratic attempt in Spanish history. This school was economically supported by Raül Roviralta, who was a doctor and aristocrat, and it was linked to a Belgium Catholic school of social work. According to the testimony of one of its students, the teachers of the school were prestigious and held varied ideologies (Estrada, cited in Barbero and Feu, 2016). The foundation of this first school of social work in Spain is a well-known and celebrated milestone in the development of the profession in the country which social work students in Spain are taught about. It is also widely known that the activity of this first school of social work was however short lived as this had to come soon into a halt with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) four years after the school ́s foundation.

But very little is known or discussed about some rather dark ramifications (discussed below in this article) of this school ́s work and the pro-fascist political trajectory the school ́s patron Roviralta would follow during and after the war. This is just one small reflection of a significant spot of political blindness affecting most historical accounts of the evolution of social work in Spain: a lack of explicit acknowledgement of social work ́s history of complicity and collaboration with the social control, oppression and indoctrination methods of the country ́s far right dictatorship which was established at the end of the civil war in 1939 and lasted until 1975. Extreme implications of this complicity include instances of involvement in human rights abuses such as forceful removal and stealing of babies from political prisoners and other families deemed unworthy or incapable to raise their children according to the Spanish religious and cultural values the dictatorship vowed to protect and enforce. Little is known, either, about histories of social workers ́ individual and collective resistance to such abuses.

The historical background: the spanish civil war and establishment of the francoist dicatorship The Spanish Civil War was started in 1936, as the result of a coup against the Republican government by a group of generals of the Spanish Armed Forces supported a number of nationalist conservative groups and political parties. After almost 3 years of conflict (1936-1939), the war ended with the victory of the Nationalist front and subsequent establishment of the francoist dictatorship (1939- 1975), ruled by the general and dictator Francisco Franco until his death in 1975.

The Spanish civil war and dictatorship became internationally notorious historical events for the political passion and civil division they raised (within and outside Spain), and for the many atrocities that were committed (*on both sides during the war, on “the defeated” after this). Political repression aimed at consolidating the francoist political regime, especially in the post-war period, was ferocious and systematic. This did not only involve violent crimes such as mass killings of opponents to the regime but it also involved sophisticated family policies and strategies of social control and repression for enshrining the “national catholic” fascist ideology of the regime, eliminating the “degeneration” caused by leftist ideas and educating (or re-educating) women and children to embrace the Francoist religious, moral and cultural norms and values. The repression of the time was however disguised by a powerful propaganda machinery of the regime which praised Franco ́s generosity with “the defeated” and an excellent treatment to their children as well as the regime ́s top priority to protect and educate all children as they represented ́the hope of the New Spain ́ (Armengou and Belis, 2002). Propaganda around the regime ́s investment on the wellbeing and education of children continued throughout the dictatorship.

Influences on the francoist use of social assistance and family segregation as means of social control

It is in relation to the promotion of social work (asistencia social) as a mechanism for social control and indoctrination at the service of the francoist dictatorship that Roviralta (patron of the first school of social work in Spain) played a role. Soon after the closure of the Barcelona social work school, during the civil war, Roviralta wrote the first Spanish book on “Social Asistance” and dedicated this to the nationalist leader and future dictator of the country Francisco Franco. This dedication reads: “To his excellency Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Head of State, genuine representative of the new Spain” (Roviralta, 1938, cited in Barbero and Feu, p.29). The book extolls the Italian and Portuguese fascist dictators Mussolini and Oliveira Salazar, too, and it outlines the curriculum of the Fascist School of Social Assistance founded in Rome in 1928, noting that this is “ a model institution” which the author [Roviralta] had “had the pleasure” of seeing at work and studying its methods. In 1933, the author continues to explain in this book, “facing the tone of disorder the republican regime had imposed in the social life of Spain and with the purpose of reducing ... its harm, I had the satisfaction... of founding in Barcelona a school of this type, the first of its kind in Spain” (Roviralta, 1938, cited in Barbero and Feu, 2016, p. 30).

More sinister and profound was the influence on the regime of the work of another doctor: the psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo-Nágera, who in 1938 was authorized by Franco to establish a national cabinet of psychological research aimed at discovering “the psychophysic roots of Marxism”. The Spanish Cabinet of Psychological Research cabinet mirrored a recently created research institute of the Nazi German secret services, and its work was underpinned by eugenic theories Vallejo-Nágera had imported from his experience as inspector of concentration camps in Germany during the First World War, where he had been in contact with notorious German pioneer eugenic psychiatrists (Gordillo, 2014). As stated in the Cabinet ́s records:

We have exposed before, in other pieces of work, the profound relationship between Marxism and mental inferiority (...) The confirmation of our hypothesis has an enormous socio-political relevance. If Marxism is preferentially militated by antisocial psychopaths, as it is our belief, then the total segregation of these subjects from their infancy could free society of such terrible plague (Cabinet of psychological research, n.d, cited in Gordillo, 2014, p.49).

According to the cabinet ́s work, children born in leftist or democratic families had to be confined to institutions that would promote “the exaltation of racial bio-psychical qualities and the elimination of environmental factors that with trough generations lead to a degradation of the biotype” (ibid).

Stolen babies: from franco ́s eugenics to economically motivated baby traficking

On the foundations above, the Francoist legal system allowed children ́s segregation and subtraction from their leftist families (political prisoners and retaliated). It is estimated that between 1940 and 1954 about 30.000 children were forcibly removed from their families (including Spanish refugee children abroad, who were systematically brought back to Spain with the help of fascist European regimes) to be raised in Catholic church institutions on behalf of the state, or given for adoption by “suitable” families linked to the regime (Gordillo, 2014).

Carme Figuerola, who was a political prisioner at the time, explains how her 3-year-old son was taken from her:

[In this prison], when a child turned 3 years old, they came to pick him up and take him to an asylum Franco had built in Madrid. They told me ... I would not see him again.

Olivia Rapp speaks about losing her refugee brother during that period: My brother was repatriated from Russia without us knowing anything. When my mother tried to bring him home, the Child Protection Board told her there was an order not to let him come, without any explanation. Many years later we have seen a report that says my family was not fit for my brother's education.

Contrary to Franco ́s propaganda, life in the institutions aimed at offering these children the “proper” care and education they would not receive from their families was marked by brainwashing and frequent abuse. The Auxilio Social ladies gathered us and told us that we were scum, we were daughters of horrible reds, murderers, atheists and criminals, we deserved nothing, and we were there for pure public charity. Francisca Aguirre.

I was brainwashed to go against my father and the democratic and republican Spain. I had to be like them, like the victors. All my education has been "el Cara al Sol" [Fascist anthem] and "Our Father". They stole my childhood, they killed me in 1936. I am dead as to whom I was going to be. Uxenu Álvarez.

(Interview extracts from Armengou and Belis, 2002)

Whereas adoptions in application of francoist family law and policy did not involve in theory economic transactions, informal payment systems and influence networks developed within the country and abroad. As business at the expense of the exploitation and plunder of “the defeated” (including removing their children for adoption) run out, the systems and networks developed around “legal” adoptions (on political grounds) became to reach out for new sources of children to keep up with the adoptions demand and feed the economic and influence networks established which are being proven to have operated until the late 1980s (Gordillo, 2014; Vinyes, Armengou, and Belis, 2003).

Most of the new victims would be among the poorest, most vulnerable and stigmatized Spanish women (such as single mothers, less educated or socially excluded women, or young pregnant women in the care of the state). The maintenance of the trafficking networks required the continued complicity of health professionals and institutions that assisted births (increasingly at hospitals), of those in charge of the civil registration of the newborns, and of institutions of social assistance that would identify and lure suitable vulnerable pregnant women from whom to obtain babies by means of coercive persuasion to give up their babies for adoption or by deceiving them to believe their children had died. The consolidated plot could however affect any women who gave birth in the many health institutions involved.

The full history and extent of baby trafficking in Spain has only started to be discovered in recent years (2010 onwards) and the struggle for justice and for finding relatives of those affected has been faced with almost unsurmountable legal challenges (prescription of crimes, legal amnesty on war and dictatorship crimes, etc), shock and an extent of denial on the part of Spanish society, and a lack of collaboration of the Spanish authorities. At present, the total number of “stolen babies” who are living or have lived with a false identity (mostly in Spain but some abroad) is unknown and estimations are highly contested. There have been, however, complaints related to the stealing of babies in more than 175 institutions across Spain between 1950 and 1990, including hospitals, health centers, institutions for expectant and new mothers and children ́s homes (Gordillo, 2014).

Both the apparent great reach of the scandal and the nature of the institutions involved should pose questions to the social work profession, even at this early stage of ongoing discovery of the truth. In fact, fingers have already been pointed at individual social workers in the few court proceedings related to stolen babies that have taken place in recent years.

Sor María (María Gómez Valbuena), a nun and the social worker of a main maternity hospital in Madrid between the early 70s and 1984, is the most renowned character involved in the illegal adoptions scheme. She was brought to court in 2012 but died aged 87 before the end of her trial. During this trial, another social worker was requested to testify due to her administrative involvement (her signature appearing in falsified documents) in one of the cases Sor Maria was accused for (ABC, 2012).

Another famous name in the scandal is that of Eduardo Vela, the first doctor to appear in court in 2018 in relation to a stolen baby case (Vela was found guilty but acquitted as the offence was considered prescribed; he has died aged 86 in October 2019). He insisted during his trial that he only dealt with the “medical” aspects of births whereas it was the midwifes and social workers who dealt with registers and administrative procedures (RTVE, 2018).

07 article image

Social Aid propaganda Digital image courtesy of the National Library of Spain (free to use for non-commercial purposes)

These might be seen as punctual accusations towards social workers. However, considering that since the early years of the Spanish dictatorship social workers were trained to fulfil a social assistance and control mission at the service of the regime, and that they received practical training and worked in institutions that played a role in baby trafficking plots such as hospitals and new mothers ́ homes, it can be concluded that many will have witnessed (from a more or less naïve lenses) and played a part on what was going on. Nevertheless, this is a chapter of the history of social work in Spain that the profession has not yet started to acknowledge or own.

Conclusion: filling historical memory gaps in order to look forward, and as a human rights mandate

Accounts of the history of social work in Spain tend to present social work as a technical profession which development was reversed and halted during the long period comprising the Spanish Civil War (1936- 1939) and most of the far right francoist dictatorship (1939-1975), when public social assistance and the training of social workers were delegated to the Catholic church and to a feminine section of the regime ́s single party to fulfill paternalistic roles ́ in relation to the relief of the poor. The development of the profession, accounts tend to report, was however reestablished and rapidly expanded during the last years of the dictatorship (when a decrease in political repression allowed foreign critical influences to enter the profession) and first decades of the Spanish democracy and welfare state (late 1970s -1990s).

As a general characteristic, these accounts, whilst acknowledging the political context that would prevent or allow the development of social work as a technical profession, do not explore in any depth the role of the profession during the most repressive periods or acknowledge the histories of complicity and resistance to political oppression throughout the history of social work in Spain. There is little recognition either that the ideology and practices of many services have remained largely untouched since the times of the dictatorship. And in the same way that the history of the darkest implications of the profession ́s complicity with the dictatorial regime have not been explored in depth, little is known about the profession ́s involvement in radical and democratic struggles (including from within critical sectors of the Catholic church and its social action groups/organisations) during the period around the Civil War, the dictatorship and the establishment of Spanish democracy. These are some areas of historical amnesia that require social workers ́ urgent attention.

Social work as a profession should understand, own and make amendments to our history, including the history of complicity with human rights abuses under repressive political regimes. This is a matter of justice and to our commitments to human rights, democracy and (critical) peace. This is also necessary to overcome regressive practices and stigmas affecting the profession and its service users, and to avoid repeating mistakes and falling again into traps of the past.

Spain does have a recent sociopolitical history marked by fear, silence pact, and repressed collective trauma (Ioakimidis and Trimikliniotis, 2018) that has naturally affected our profession and shaped the context of training and practice encountered by the well-intentioned social workers who enrolled this profession to help those in need during very complicated times. But a ripe time has come for new generations of social workers to engage with historic memory and search for the truth with fresh and willing eyes; the profession’s commitment to human rights entails this mandate and offers helpful lenses to embark on this. More urgent and importantly, this is also the right time for those social workers who were involved, suffered or witnessed these systems of repression to speak and contribute with their insights and invaluable testimonies to help fill the gaps in the profession’s historical memory before their stories are lost.

If you have witnessed or been involved in any of the historical events discussed in this chapter and would potentially like to take part in research on the topic, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this chapter for discussion.


References: Armengou, M. and Belis, R. (2002) [online] Los niños perdidos del franquismo - Documentary. TV3
ABC (2012) Una asistente social reconoce su firma en la adopción de una supuesta niña robada. (20 September 2012) ABC. Available at abc.es . Accessed 10 November 2019.
Barbero, J.M., Feu, M. (2016) “El origen del trabajo social en Cataluña: la escuela de asistencia social para la mujer (1932-1939)” Pedagogia i Treball Social. Revista de Ciences Socials Aplicades, 4 (2) 3-33. Esteso Poves, M.J. (2011) Entonces un médico era como Dios, no imaginaba que me robaron a mi niña. (24 February 2011) Diagonal. diagonal periodico . Accessed 10 November 2019.
Gordillo, J.L. (2014) Informe especial: ¿Por qué nadie busca a los bebés robados en España? Periodismo Humano. Available at: periodiosmo Humano Ioakimidis, V. and Trimikliniotis, N. (2018). Social Work: A tale of two professions. Making sense of and amends with social work’s troubled histories. Unpublished paper.
RTVE (2018) El doctor Vela en el primer juicio por bebés robados: "No le he dado una niña a nadie". (26 June 2018) RTVE news rtve.es Accessed 9 November 2019.
Vinyes, R., Armengou, M. and Belis, R (2003). Los niños perdidos del franquismo. Barcelona: Debolsillo.