Independent officers under scrutiny as concern grows that they lack bite

The government and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service are examining the role of the officers who monitor children’s care plans as concerns are raised about their power.

Nearly two years after their posts were created, the independent reviewing officers (IROs) have yet to refer a case to Cafcass, the ultimate sanction at their disposal if local authorities fail to adhere to care plans.

It is feared that the role has too little authority for its intended purpose.

Under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the officers can refer cases to Cafcass where they believe a child’s human rights have been breached by a failure to implement parts of their care plan.

Now it has emerged that Cafcass and the Department for Education and Skills are working on a project “to encourage the development of the IRO system through research, dissemination of good practice and training”.

Cafcass has also opened up its legal advice line to officers to support them through problems they may face before they reach the stage of a formal referral.

Alison Paddle, chair of court guardians’ body Nagalro, said there were “fundamental flaws” with the officers’ role, particularly the fact that they were usually employed by the local authority they were supposed to scrutinise.

She added: “It is no surprise that there are still no cases coming through the IRO system despite what we know about the poor outcomes for children in local authority care.

“Children can be at risk of harm from the local authority as institutional parent as much as from neglectful or abusing families.

“Until IROs are properly independent of local authorities and have access to their own legal advice they will remain unable to fully safeguard the interests and rights of children whose care plans, or the implementation of them, are inadequate.”

John Kemmis, chief executive of charity Voice, said it was difficult for IROs to challenge bad care plans because they would be taking on their own employer.

He said it was time to look at another system whereby children could self-refer to Cafcass, supported by advocates.


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