Jan Folda

Child Protection Advisor SOS Children's Villages International

Changing mindsets is not easy but worth to do it

SOS Children’s Villages provides care and support to many children in different types of programmes. It is easy to believe that the care and support is enough to say that we protect the children. However, we always need to challenge ourselves and ask whether the children are really safe in the SOS programmes. Do we do enough to protect them against any form of harm? What about ourselves, about the organization? People tend to replicate the behaviour they learned from their parents when they were children. We are rooted in the local culture and traditions. The way how the parents raised us is replicated in the way how we treat our own children. In case of SOS Children’s Villages, it also directly influences the way how we treat the children supported by the SOS programmes. As part of this effort, we need to prevent potential harmful practises that may affect the children and young people in our programmes. How can we guarantee a safe environment for every child and young person in our programmes?

In some situations, the principles of SOS Children’s Villages are not coherent with the local traditions and practises. Corporal punishment, female genital mutilation, early marriages, not accepting children born out of wedlock, these are all practises that we can still find in many countries around the world.

How can we become strong enough to challenge these local practices? How can we create a different/rights-based/safe/ reality in our own programmes?

A different way to handle teenage pregnancies
Two years ago, I went to Latin America to a meeting and I had an opportunity to discuss how they deal with the topic of teenage pregnancies together with SOS mothers, co-workers but also young people from one member association. In the past, young girls who fell pregnant were very often expelled from the programme. It was understood that it was not acceptable to keep the girls in the programme. They had to return back to their families of origin or go to an institution. Very often, their life became even more difficult than before. In the member association I visited, they decided to go a very supportive way. Young girls know that if they fall pregnant they are not alone. The SOS mother and other SOS co-workers will be there to support them. They have a right to stay in the programme, start an independent life with their new family or together with the SOS mother and other SOS co-workers to find another possible solution.

I met three young girls who fell pregnant while they were still in care of SOS Children’s Villages. One of them decided to leave SOS Children’s Village and created a new family with her boyfriend. Another girl stayed in the SOS Children’s Village but based on a decision of the child welfare authority she was about to be “reintegrated” with the family of origin of her partner. And the third girl left the SOS Children’s Village but still kept contact with her biological siblings living there. All three girls were supported by the member association and its co-workers in the decision making process and they had a key role to decide about the next steps. They all confirmed that it was not an easy time for them but they appreciate the support from the SOS Children’s Village and all its co-workers. However, as one of the girls said “the family advisor advised me to ‘speak with the people in the programme; you will not be removed from the programme’. Also my SOS mother told me ‘you are neither the first nor the last girl becoming pregnant in the village; speak to the SOS co-workers’.”

Based on this positive experience, the Care and Protection Team at the International Office drafted a statement that is meant to support member associations in dealing with the challenging topic of teenage pregnancies. We/I also initiated a discussion with the sponsorship department to find out the best way to reflect this changed practise in our system. As a result it was decided to change the departure reason in the departure letter form of the sponsorship office system from “pregnancy” into “pregnancy (not in line with SOS policies)”. All this was meant to highlight that expelling pregnant young girls from the SOS programmes is not correct and we should all learn from already existing positive experiences.

Appreciating this great example, I ask myself: How can SOS Children’s Villages support those children that are at particular risk and in need of help?

Experiences that impact in a wider range
On another occasion, I received information about a number of child safeguarding concerns and allegations reported in one of our member associations. They included care quality issues but also serious allegations of child abuse and neglect. The reporter was very angry about the organization and threatened SOS Children’s Villages with approaching media if we did not act quickly in addressing all these issues.

Many of the reported allegations were related to the traditional way of raising children in that country where for example corporal punishment is still widely practised. My role was to facilitate the contact between the reporter and the respective regional office since the reporter initially expressed huge lack of trust to the member association and the regional office as well. I also supported the regional office in defining necessary actions and followed up on the development of the whole situation. I was therefore right in the middle of all discussions and emotions associated with this situation. At the times when the situation was not easy, I always found energy in the positive examples such as the situation described above related to teenage pregnancies. It helped to keep the faith that no matter how difficult, challenging and emotional the situation is, things can be worked out in a positive way and that the best interests of the children involved in the reported situation are always in the centre of all of our actions.

During the follow up actions, some of the allegations were upheld, some unfounded. But many SOS co-workers including SOS mothers did not feel comfortable about the situation. They grew up in families where parents practised corporal punishment and very strict upbringing of children. So why should they see it now as something wrong? It was obvious that there was a need for a thorough but also sensitive discussion about these issues. The main message of the discussion was clear. SOS Children’s Villages as an organization working with children stands for “zero tolerance” approach towards any form of abuse or neglect. Our Child Protection Policy defines corporal punishment as one of the forms of physical abuse. And although according to the local traditions in many countries corporal punishment is still something normal and commonly accepted, it cannot be normal in the SOS programmes. People working for the organization have to accept that.

During the discussion with the co-workers and SOS mothers that were part of the follow-up actions, it turned out that more capacity building on positive parenting was needed for the caregivers and other co-workers in the SOS Children’s Village. However, since corporal punishment is also widely accepted by the local community, a crucial question remains open for our team: How can we promote and explain our position of zero tolerance towards any forms of child abuse (including corporal punishment) when we become challenged by the local communities?
The difficulties and challenges during the whole process were a big learning for SOS Children’s Villages. For example, it was not clear how the situation should be handled when there is a disagreement between a member association and the regional office or even the regional office and the International Office. As the main outcomes, it was decided to define concrete procedures how to deal with the reported child safeguarding concerns and allegations and to specify the General Secretariat’s roles and responsibilities in the whole process.
In March 2015, the Management Council approved a new policy support document on the roles and responsibilities of the General Secretariat in the child safeguarding reporting and responding process. It does not provide all answers but it gives a very concrete frame based on collected lessons learnt. Collecting these experiences has been sometimes painful but it was worth to do it. At the same time, we need to be able to defend our position when it comes to the point when we are challenged by the local communities.

Jan Folda 

joined SOS Children's Villages in 2007. He is Child Protection Advisor at SOS Children's Villages International. 

By learning from each other and listening attentively to the children and young people in our programmes, he believes very strongly, the treasures of working on keeping children safe is a reality. Respect, trust, and sense of responsibility are vital for life and these he practices and transmits in his family. 
Hiking, cycling and travelling are sources of exhilaration, still it is nice looking forward to being home again. Born in a small town in the central part of Czech Republic and growing up in the big city, Prague, he now quickly realizes how fast he wants to be back to the buzz and rush of the big city whenever he is shortly away from it.