Lack of referrals calls into question independence of review officers

The role of the independent officers who review children’s care plans has been condemned as being “fatally flawed” after it emerged that none have taken concerns over councils’ actions to the final stage of legal proceedings.

Since September 2004, independent reviewing officers (IROs) have been able to refer cases to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service if they have exhausted all options within councils, and if children have no other person willing to take a case on their behalf, but Cafcass confirmed this week it had not yet received any formal referrals.

Cafcass corporate director Jane Booth said there had been several enquiries from IROs and that some of these had resulted in the “active pursuit of concerns with individual local authorities”.

The lack of referrals has prompted concerns that IROs do not have sufficient independence and are not powerful enough to stand up to local authority decisions.

They are paid out of council funds and can also obtain advice from councils’ legal departments. One IRO told Community Care that a council withdrew legal advice from her when it realised a case she was handling could be referred to Cafcass.

The number of levels of management that cases must be discussed with before they can go to Cafcass was also a major problem, she said. An IRO can only refer a case to Cafcass once they have made every attempt to resolve it within the council, even up to chief executive level.

Alison Paddle, chair of children’s guardians’ organisation Nagalro, said: “You’ve got to be pretty strong to take a case to that level.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive of Baaf Adoption and Fostering, said: “The system is fatally flawed. I can’t believe every child with a care plan has had it implemented.”

The role of IROs was created after concerns that local authorities were breaching children’s human rights by failing to properly implement care plans. A 2002 House of Lords judgment concluded that the courts had no general power to monitor the discharge of councils’ obligations once a care order had been made, but that councils failing in their duties could be challenged under the Human Rights Act 1998.


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