SAFEGUARDING - 16 June 2023

A global Ombuds Office strengthens safeguarding at SOS Children’s Villages

A global network of independent ombuds is one of the cornerstones of SOS Children’s Villages’ work towards stronger safeguarding and better protection and representation of children and young people. Building the Ombuds Office from the ground up would not have been possible without meaningful child and youth participation.

An ombuds is an impartial and independent conflict resolution practitioner. The ombud’s role is to listen to children, young people and adults in SOS Children’s Villages’ programmes and provide assistance with their concerns. Care leavers and participants in family strengthening activities and other SOS Children’s Villages’ programmes also have access to the ombuds' service. 

The ombuds’ assistance is confidential and informal. They receive inquiries about issues that SOS Children’s Villages’ safeguarding processes have not been able to resolve to the satisfaction of the child, young person, or adult involved. The ombuds do not replace or duplicate safeguarding processes – SOS Children’s Villages and the independent Ombuds Office collaborate to strengthen child protection across the organization. Thanks to their local presence and impartial views, ombuds are able to identify and report gaps and topics for SOS Children’s Villages’ management to address. 

The work of each ombuds starts with a trust-based relationship with those they represent. To believe in the ombuds system and trust their representatives, children and young people need awareness, influence, and a sense of ownership, all of which come from meaningful participation. 

Child and youth participation at the centre  

Children and young people always have the right to be heard and to contribute their views on issues and decisions that affect their lives. To make sure each ombuds can effectively address the needs of children and young people and represent their interests, the Ombuds Office has made meaningful children's participation a guiding principle of its work.  

In 2021, over 300 children and young people aged 10–24 years took part in developing the concept of the Ombuds Office, including the ombuds model and the role of the National Ombuds. 

In three pilot countries, information-sharing and trust-building sessions followed by face-to-face consultations were organized with participants of different ages, genders, and backgrounds. Children and young people living in alternative care and participating in family strengthening programmes were included. 

Young participants talked about their understanding of safeguarding, their awareness of children’s rights, and the qualities of an ideal ombuds. They shared their insights on possible risks that could come with reporting concerns and wrongdoing and on the kind of support they need to express themselves freely. They also shared advice on how to communicate with their peers and inform them about the ombuds. 

After the consultations, participants in the pilot countries - Benin, Sierra Leone and Uruguay - elected Children's Representatives and Staff Representatives to act as liaisons for them with the National Ombuds. 

Children also elected peers to be trained to interview and shortlist candidates for the National, Regional, and Global Ombuds positions. Going forward, Children's Representatives will be involved in peer awareness-raising and monitoring the access and peers’ knowledge of the Ombuds Office. Children and young people in each country will monitor the work of the Ombuds Office to make sure all ombuds understand that they are accountable to children and obliged to protect their rights and accurately represent their voices. 

Consultations with children and young people are a crucial source of insights and information that will continue to inform implementation of the Ombuds Office. Children's Representatives will actively shape the project as it develops and expands to new countries. 

Looking ahead

The creation of a federation-wide ombuds office at national, regional and global levels is a key part of SOS Children’s Villages’ Safeguarding Action Plan, developed in 2021 in response to past failures in safeguarding and governance. The progress made on the Safeguarding Action Plan serves our priority goal: to create an environment in which all children, young people and staff can feel safe, heard and supported. 

Halfway through the four-year Safeguarding Action Plan, the Ombuds Office is operational, the Ombuds Board is appointed, candidates for Global Ombuds have been shortlisted, and two Regional Ombuds and three National Ombuds have been hired and trained. Additionally, 24 more member associations are working to recruit national ombuds.  

As a next step, once adequate human resources systems are in place, the Ombuds Office will work with SOS Children’s Villages to expand the service to staff. This expansion will build on the solid foundation the ombuds system has developed addressing the needs of children and young people.

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