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Safeguarding accountability: A journey, not a final destination

By Dr. Tessie San Martin

Plan International is a girls’ rights organization. Since we were founded in 1937, our focus has been on the most vulnerable and marginalized groups — for whatever reason: their gender, caste, social and economic status, ethnic group, or any other factor. Today, with our emphasis on girls’ rights and gender equality, that commitment continues.

A Plan staff member helps a girl displaced by hurricane Eta and Iota with her coloring. Children need safe spaces to play, especially after natural disasters.

Delivering on our ambition to serve the most marginalized globally requires scale — and it is complex. We have operations in over 57,000 communities located in 75 countries, which engage more than 50 million children annually. We employ nearly 11,500 staff around the world, and partner with more than 36,500 organizations and tens of thousands of volunteers. And we recognize that, because much of Plan’s work is focused on strengthening children’s and youth’s capability to advocate on their own behalf, the way in which we work can create additional risks for the same populations we seek to serve.

This is why safeguarding is at the center of every part of Plan’s programming, advocacy and operations. What does that mean in practice?

First, a robust Safeguarding Policy guides the basic actions we need to take and specifies the roles, responsibilities and accountability across the organization for executing it. Every one of the 75 entities that are part of Plan International, including Plan International USA, undertakes an annual comprehensive self-assessment and regular audits to evaluate how well we are performing against that policy, its principles and directives.

The policy includes strong standards that apply to donors and supporters, including photographing and exchanging correspondence with children, interacting with children and their families, and an annual sex offender screening of our entire data base of active child sponsors. We also vigorously vet every corporate and foundation partner. And our policy includes robust elements to protect employees, from personnel recruiting, vetting and continuous staff training, to supporter training and reporting.

Our commitment to safeguarding includes being fully transparent and reporting every abuse/safeguarding case on an on-going basis. In this context, I want to highlight the incidents we recently reported at Plan USA:

— A sponsored child reached out to a sponsor via Facebook. The sponsor asked us what to do and our staff asked the donor to refrain from engaging. This is important because all communication must flow through Plan offices to ensure the child is never at-risk and that the child never asks for something inappropriate. This advice was followed. No further contact occurred.

— Two inappropriate letters were written to children. Plan USA, like every part of Plan, reviews all donor-child communications. The inappropriate content was flagged before the missives left the U.S. As a result, one sponsor discontinued. The Plan USA team is working with the other donor to create a better understanding of why what they said was inappropriate.

No incident is trivial. Every incident contains peril if not managed swiftly and well. What I am reporting here is part of a larger annual report in which all Plan entities disclose every safeguarding incident. 

It is worth noting that in our reporting we tend to err on the side of caution, and disclose anything that could be characterized as a breach. In so doing, we found that thirteen of the cases reported last year were unfounded. We very much value a workforce, partners and volunteers that are attentive and bring forward potential issues. Investigating false positives is better than a hotline that doesn’t ring.

As I look at the last several years, I am proud of the safeguarding policies, systems, processes and training at Plan. But while all those elements are necessary for an effective safeguarding environment, they are not sufficient. The challenge is creating the type of environment that moves us not just to act quickly and decisively, but also with empathy and care, every time we discover issues — and that encourages disclosure of issues as soon as they are surfaced so we can be accountable and learn. Creating that environment requires intentionality and persistence. Ultimately, this is as much about culture and tone as it is about systems, processes or training. And the tone is set at the top. Every executive and senior manager has an ongoing role to play in shaping the culture of safeguarding, compliance and transparency. Creating a “good” safeguarding program is a journey and not just a destination.

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