Child Safeguarding – June 8 2021

Austria’s ombudsperson system and how it enhances child protection

Setting up an ombudsperson system that represents the rights of children, young people and others affected by abuse is one of the pillars of SOS Children’s Villages’ action plan to improve safeguarding. Building on the model already practiced in some member associations, such as in Austria, it will support people who have experienced abuse and anybody seeking resolution of concerns. The goal is to have an organizational ombudsperson in every country.

The role of an ombudsperson is to independently assist children, young people, whistleblowers, or other individuals to determine options to resolve their complaints and concerns through existing channels.

Ombudspersons are also invaluable in making SOS Children’s Villages’ staff and management aware of challenges in the effectiveness of policies and procedures and concerns around safeguarding.

An ombudsperson does not replace existing child safeguarding policies and reporting and responding procedures within SOS Children’s Villages member associations or the General Secretariat. Rather it enhances safeguarding by providing an external and independent view on safeguarding practices and procedures.  

SOS Children’s Villages Austria introduced an ombudsperson system in 2019. Dr Karin Flenreiss-Frankl, a clinical and health psychologist who also served in the Human Rights Commission of Austria, is one of three ombudspersons in Austria.

Dr Flenreiss-Frankl answers some questions about her role and experiences as an ombudsperson.

What is your role as an ombudsperson?

I see myself as an independent external point of contact. People are referred to me by the public Austrian Ombudsman Board or directly by SOS Children’s Villages. We then make an appointment to speak about their concerns.

In addition to the specific allegations of violence or abuse, the focus of my questioning is on how their lives have been affected by it.

People come to me with a burden. I am like a “trash can” where they can dump the garbage of their past. The feeling that they are being heard is very important to them.

I write a report that is considered by the protection Commission of Affected Persons established in SOS Children’s Villages Austria. It highlights the impact of the alleged abuse on the victim and what they expect from the process. The commission decides based on my recommendation if therapy or financial compensation is the most suitable action.

What do the people that come to you expect from SOS Children's Villages?

This is always a central question that I ask and I get a lot of different answers. Some expect financial compensation, others say that money is not the most important thing but they would rather prefer a sincere apology. Others are very specific with their wish to get support for their healing, such as therapy.

From your point of view, why was this position established in Austria?

Victim protection has become more important in recent years. An increasing number of people are turning to the Austrian Ombudsman Board, a public body that protects and promotes compliance with human rights, with issues around victim protection. As a result, I think that SOS Children’s Villages Austria decided there should be an external contact point for people who are or were in the organization’s care. Other organizations, like the Catholic Church, have set up similar contact points.

How often have you been contacted since you started?

I have seen between 10 and 15 people. Only one of them was still in SOS Children’s Villages’ care. Most of the others were between 40 and 60 years old.

What makes a good ombudsperson?

I think the most important thing is to stay neutral and stick to the facts. It also helps to have a background in victim protection. For example, I have worked with an organization that helps persons affected by crime with professional counselling and support.

Given your experience in Austria, what should be considered when setting up ombudspersons in other countries?

The basic framework in Austria is good. Like everything else, it needs constant revision to ensure it continues to work and improve.

In other countries and on other continents, different cultural backgrounds will play a role in the approach to violence and abuse. It’s not possible to duplicate what we’re doing in Austria. It is important to determine the quality of existing systems if they exist.

SOS Children’s Villages should establish one universal framework with country-specific additions or changes where appropriate.

Do you see it as part of your role to make suggestions for improvements to the process and the system in general?

Yes, I like to give feedback. SOS Children’s Villages Austria is also very interested in conducting evaluations that can help them improve the system.

Is it possible to remain independent after working with the same organization for years?

A: Learning to be independent comes with the job. I write several reports and opinions every day which require me to remain factual and independent without taking sides.

SOS Children’s Villages Austria also makes it easy to work independently. I never experience resistance or get the impression that they sweep issues under the carpet.

That said, I think it would be good to consider replacing ombudspersons every five to 10 years.

Can an ombudsman improve the protection of children in the medium and long term?

A: I hope so. It should not only be a retrospective effect but also bring about a different way of thinking within the organization.

Another good thing is that people who work directly with children are aware that there’s an external office to which a child or young person can go if he or she is not heard internally. This can have a preventive, long-term positive effect on child and youth care.

The immediate way forward in SOS Children’s Villages International

In line with SOS Children’s Villages’ action plan in response to the Independent Child Safeguarding Review, initial steps to set up an ombudsperson system include the following:

  • External safeguarding experts to develop a plan for rolling out the ombudsperson concept throughout the organization.
  • The appointment of an interim organizational ombudsperson serving the General Secretariat as a whole.
  • Piloting the organizational ombudsperson approach in the West, Central and North Africa region, starting with Benin and Sierra Leone.