Independent reviewing officers are to be given more responsibilities but debate rages about how the cuts and the Munro review might affect their role, writes Gordon Carson
Independent reviewing officers will, from April, have stronger powers to ensure the 60,000 looked-after children in England are receiving the care they are entitled to. But despite the bolstering of the function, the longer-term role for IROs is less clear as they await the results of major policy evaluations, including the family justice review and Munro review of child protection.
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 made it a statutory duty for local authorities to appoint IROs to review children’s care plans and ensure their wishes and feelings were fully considered. The Labour government, concerned that IROs were failing to challenge poor practice by local authorities, used the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 to strengthen the role (see panel, right).
The coalition has confirmed it will implement these powers in April, but the Department for Education has yet to publish the results of its own review of IROs conducted in late 2010, and debate continues about the need for the role and how it should be structured.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services believes it adds another layer of bureaucracy to an over-burdened system. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering says there is an “urgent need to empower and support frontline social workers” and that a strengthened role should not “diminish the authority and responsibility for case management in the social worker and their manager”.
However, Jon Fayle, chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (Nairo), says the role and new powers are needed to hold councils to account for several reasons; for example, the employment contracts of council social workers require them to abide by policies and procedures that “may not always represent the interests of individual children”.
New regulations will empower
Fayle says IROs will be empowered by the new regulations, including the requirement that any proposals that emerge from review meetings must be implemented unless challenged within a week by the local authority.
Also, if IROs are unhappy with the local authority’s conduct, they will be able to refer cases to Cafcass at any stage. IROs already have the power to do this as a last resort, but by 2009 had referred only two cases.
IROs work with family court guardians during family proceedings when a child is looked after, or when a referral is made under section 118 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It is these links with Cafcass that have prompted calls for closer connections with, and even the merging of the IRO role into, the family courts body.
This was mooted by the ADCS last year, though the association seems to have reassessed its position since.
Colin Green, chair of its families, communities and young people committee, says the overlap between Cafcass and IROs is “small” because many looked-after children enter the system under section 20 voluntary arrangements rather than as a result of court proceedings. “Probably a reasonably well-held view within ADCS is that the proper role for IROs is within the local authority, in children’s services,” he says.
This view is not shared by everyone, though. Jonathan Ewen, lead on children in care for Barnardo’s, says IROs “must be independent of local authorities if they are to have real authority”.
He is not convinced, though, that Cafcass is a more suitable home due to the costs of any major reorganisation and the concerns over its duty allocation systems for cases entering the family justice system.
Cafcass is also non-committal about closer links with IROs, particularly with the results of the family justice review to come. Policy director Bruce Clark says, although there are “synergies” between the roles of children’s guardians and IROs, “any changes to the linkages between the two would require careful planning and consideration of the resource issues”.
Retain the role
Although Green wants local authorities to retain the IRO role, he disagrees with the strengthening of their powers to scrutinise performance, saying this should be achieved through inspections and evaluating the outcomes local authorities achieve for children. IROs ought to focus on improving quality of children’s care and the practice of less experienced social workers, he says.
If local authorities are to employ IROs for the time being, that leaves the question of which department should have responsibility for their role. Fayle says many IROs are unhappy about being based in children’s services because it may impede them as they challenge poor practice, and would prefer to be in their chief executive’s department. This is just one of many issues raised by Nairo in a discussion paper and questionnaire sent to members in January.
The IRO role could also be affected by the Munro review. Though its interim report in February did not touch on IROs, there are suggestions the final version could call for them to take on more child protection functions, such as chairing conferences, a task that many already do. It is therefore clear that further reform of the IRO role is possible, even as new powers are introduced.
THE NEW RESPONSIBILITIES FOR IROs
The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 strengthens the IRO role with new powers from April. These include:
● Local authorities must appoint a named IRO for each child.
● The IRO must monitor the local authority’s performance in each case and the wishes and feelings of the child must be given “due consideration”.
● The IRO must speak privately with each child before each review.
● The IRO will be able to refer cases to Cafcass at any time if they consider it to be appropriate, and not just as a last resort.
● Proposals made at a child’s review become decisions and must be implemented unless challenged by the local authority within a week.
IRO saved foster placement after plea to council chief
Brian*, an experienced IRO, says a recent case involving a teenage boy highlights the importance of the role in protecting young people when decisions are made against their wishes. The teenager was in a long-term foster placement but, after an incident during the school summer holidays, the local authority wanted to move him.
Brian discovered this proposal – and that there had been two meetings of professionals to discuss the move – only when he was preparing to review the boy’s care plan in September. The meetings had not involved the foster family or an advocate, and the child was “adamant that he didn’t want to leave his placement”, says Brian.
Brian then heard the boy was to be moved without notice; he would have been collected from school and taken to a new placement, without the knowledge of his foster carers.
After taking legal advice from Cafcass, Brian took the case to the council’s chief executive, saying the move would breach the boy’s human rights. With the additional input of a children’s advocate, the move was stopped.
Brian feels he succeeded because he is employed by the council’s performance division rather than children’s services and believes the IRO role ought to remain in the local authority. “I am the only in-house IRO within my authority,” he says. “The others are self-employed and they have more difficulties getting things done quickly.”
* Name has been changed
Inform subscribers can access an expert written guide to the new changes coming into force in April as a result of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008
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