Roughly 240 million children worldwide — that’s 1 out of 10 — grow up alone, without any support, care, or stable relationships.
How a child grows up affects everything from their health to their developmental outcomes to their general well-being — even well beyond childhood. Children who grow up without adequate parental care are more likely to experience abuse, neglect, exploitation, or poor nutrition. This can have lifelong consequences for both their physical and mental health.
The majority of children without parental care live in family-based alternative care such as foster families, but whenever that’s not possible, they often end up in residential care institutions. Many countries are working to reduce the number of children living in residential care by preventing it — whenever possible — by reuniting children with their families. Globally, an estimated 2.9 million children were in residential care in 2021.
SOS Children's Villages works in more than 130 countries and is the largest NGO working to support children without parental care or at risk of losing it. In 2021, the organization received independent reviews it had commissioned to investigate past failures in safeguarding and governance.
The NGO publicly apologized for the failings and encouraged anyone with knowledge of past safeguarding failures to come forward. Since then, the organization has been on a journey to establish an environment where children, young people, and staff feel safe while ensuring their rights and dignity are respected. This process is guided by a comprehensive safeguarding action plan. The establishment of the Independent Special Commission is a prioritized action of the Safeguarding Action Plan.
Devex spoke to Ingrid Johansen, the CEO of SOS Children’s Villages International, about how the organization is transforming to address past cases of abuse and prevent future ones.
In 2021, an independent review found evidence of multiple cases of child abuse and mismanagement within the organization. What have been some of the key lessons from the organizational transformation you’ve undergone since?
The past safeguarding failures in our organization go against everything we stand for.
Several victims/survivors have courageously come forward over the last two years. Listening to them has been critical to ensure that we take the right steps. This has supported us to improve our prevention work and make fundamental changes in our systems and procedures
We realized that we needed to look even closer at how other organizations have dealt with past safeguarding failures, especially since some cases date back to the 1980s and 90s. The big learning for us was really that we needed to address the root causes that contributed to these failures. Safeguarding — meaning child, adult, and asset safeguarding, is a top priority across the more than 130 countries we are active in.
In what ways was a cultural transformation of the organization also necessary to ensure accountability? How have you improved internal reporting mechanisms?
How we live our values is at the essence of who we are and how we deliver on our mission.
Beyond addressing the individual past cases, we had to acknowledge that we needed to transform as an organization to prevent future cases. In short: While remaining true and committed to our noble and needed mission, we are transforming how we work to best serve the children we care for and to become the gold standard for the sector in terms of child safeguarding.
It's really important to ensure that you have a culture that is fighting against hierarchical norms and making sure that people feel that it’s safe to speak up and challenge whoever is in power. You need to make sure they are being encouraged and provided the safe space they need through, for example, a whistleblowing mechanism. You have a responsibility as a leader to nurture an open, speak-up culture. There needs to be accountability; people need to see that nobody is untouchable.
It’s important to ensure that if something happens — because things do sometimes go wrong, especially when you work in high-risk environments — it’s immediately picked up and that the people affected are supported straight away. And that whoever's reporting it is immediately put in a safe space.
Culture is probably the most important piece and also the one that has the biggest, long-term commitment. There is no quick fix to organizational culture change, it is a multiyear process. We need to introduce, implement, and live a culture of accountability and good governance on all levels of the organization — everywhere we are present. And that's a commitment that you have to keep driving as a leader.
Change is never an easy process; it can be frustrating for some staff, but it is rewarding to see our children better served, happier, and more protected. Because children around the world need us more than ever.
That is what I am here for.
Can you tell us more about the safeguarding action plan and how SOS Children’s Villages has worked to strengthen child safeguarding over the past few years?
The transformation process has already been underway for some time. We have a clear road map, and we are in the process of tackling the most pressing issues. We have a four-year safeguarding action plan in place and are already looking to build on this for the next phase of our transformation.
One example is our program to establish a global network of ombudspeople.
The ombudsperson needs to be local, speak the local language, and to be traveling around to all the different programs in a country. It's an independent and trusted person who's there to listen to the children and staff and be there for them — a person who's aware of how things should be working and who can report if they’re not. If the reporting and responding system for some reason fails, the children can go to the ombudsperson and tell them what’s happening and they know that there is somebody who's on their side that's not working directly for the organization.
We are finalizing the pilot phase in three countries, Benin, Sierra Leone, and Uruguay, and this year and next we’ll roll it out in all the countries where we work. I believe it's an innovative and powerful initiative. Each national ombuds will answer to a regional one, then to a global ombuds that is independently funded and set up from the organization.
Another thing we spent a lot of time on is supporting individual victims and survivors of past abuse who have stepped forward. There are now more than 500 individuals who have received support or will receive it soon. We also encouraged people to step forward, so that we can make amends and seek justice if that’s still possible. It's very challenging to dig up the past to the extent that we've done, but I think it's the only thing that we can do with integrity. Ultimately, it makes us a better organization.
It's really important to ensure that you have a culture that is fighting against hierarchical norms and making sure that people feel that it’s safe to speak up and challenge whoever is in power.
The Independent Special Commission is expected to publish its final report in April. What are the next steps in this journey, and how will you continue to ensure recommendations are implemented and follow up on progress?
We realized that we need a comprehensive independent review. Setting up the Independent Special Commission was an important milestone in our transformation process.
The report is a huge component of the safeguarding action plan because it's looking broadly at our safeguarding and governance challenges. I expect the report to give us clear feedback on where we stand and where we still need to change. It's looking at accountability of senior leaders: who knew what, when, but didn't act appropriately. When it comes to direct perpetrators, that's been handled at a national level, and if it's possible to bring that person to justice then we have done so.
The part that I feel comforted in is that we were and are so public about all of this, that we are being very transparent about what we're doing, where we're doing well, and where we're not doing well. We're keeping in very close contact with partners and donors and they are holding us to account to ensure that we live up to our commitments.
What’s your call to action for governmental authorities in helping to support better accountability and safeguarding for children?
Our call to action is for governments to take responsibility for children and ensure they grow up in a stable environment.
Governments need to address the root causes that lead to families breaking down. This includes extreme poverty, social isolation, and stigmatization. But also ensuring particular support for children at risk of growing up alone because of wars, conflicts, the effects of the climate crises, and other disasters.
We know that a mix of many factors lead to family separation. When a child ends up alone, governments must provide a full range of quality care solutions. The solution must always be in the best interest of the child — and ideally in family-like settings.
When children are separated from their families, that’s where they become vulnerable. And that could be prevented if governments invest in supporting families to stay together. We see this in all of the more than 130 countries where we are present.