ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland apologized on Thursday to hundreds of victims of draconian social welfare policies that separated poor and illegitimate children from their families and even led to forced sterilizations.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga made the apology on behalf of the Swiss government at an event in Berne attended by about 700 victims of the measures, which were ended only in 1981. Many of the victims were abused in care homes or exploited on the farms where they were placed.

"We could not continue to look away because that is exactly what we already did for far too long," Sommaruga said in her speech. "Today should be a day of confession... and a call against suppression and forgetting."

Sommaruga is planning further steps to address what she called a "dark chapter of Swiss history" including possible legal and financial redress for the victims.

The Swiss authorities used to routinely put children and young people in care if their families were judged to be incapable of caring for them. The so-called "forced welfare measures" also gave the state powers over other social outcasts including prostitutes, alcoholics and drug users.

The "Verdingkinder" or "contract children" were mainly children from poor families in the cities. Many were put to work on farms as little more than forced labor, and there were also cases of forced adoptions or sterilizations.

Historians say the policies affected hundreds of thousands of children dating back to the 19th century. Thousands of individuals were sterilized.

Switzerland is still a conservative society; women only got the vote at the federal level in 1971, with the canton of Appenzell the last to grant them the right in regional elections in 1991.

Both the Canadian and Australian governments have apologized in recent years for removing indigenous children from their families.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)