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What has happened to Independent Reviewing Officers?

Michael Griffith-Jones considers the impact that independent reviewing officers in care plans have made since their creation in 2002.

What has happened to Independent Reviewing Officers?

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Michael Griffith-Jones

After starred care plans were killed off by the House of Lords in 2002[1] , the government introduced Independent Reviewing Officers [2] (IROs) and accompanying Regulations [3] to return responsibility for monitoring of children's wellbeing in the care system to the social work profession. A child whose interests had been protected during care proceedings by a Children's Guardian should continue to have those interests protected once a care order was made, by an IRO. It was recognised that these children needed independent safeguarding from the occasional acute failings of the care system, as identified in some enquiries [4], as well as from the chronic failings of drift. Has the introduction of IROs made a difference, and, if not, can they do so?

The credibility of the care system was under increasing pressure, not least from the judiciary, whose anecdotal experience was that care plans agreed at the time of care proceedings seemed rarely to be followed. (This, of course, may be a distorted view, as the cases they see returning to court are the ones that go wrong, or they would not have been back in court.)

Before 2004 many authorities had already employed what they called 'independent' reviewing officers – independent, that is, from the line and resource management of children's cases – in place of the team managers who had chaired their own social workers' Looked After Children (LAC) reviews.

The big new idea was that IROs were intended to be truly independent, and could, if all else failed, refer a case to CAFCASS if a child's human rights were breached, which could result in litigation against the local authority.

However, no child has yet been referred to CAFCASS by any IRO, although a handful have sought advice from CAFCASS. So has the scheme failed, as might be assumed from this simple measure?

Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that there are looked after children whose human rights have been breached by the actions (or inactions) of local authorities, it could be possible that these breaches have been resolved internally in the local authority without the IRO having to refer to CAFCASS. Whilst I do not believe that the rate of referral to CAFCASS is the only, or even most important, measure of the success or failure of the IRO scheme, there is little evidence that dispute resolution processes in many authorities have been much used or, indeed, that such processes even exist in some authorities.

The Guidance [5] that accompanied the Regulations made clear that the government anticipated a sea change in how children's cases were reviewed and how such children's welfare could be monitored. The Guidance stated 'the IRO is an authoritative professional with at least equivalent status to an experienced social work team manager' and 'the IRO will ensure that the developmental needs of the child are identified and met through the care planning and review process.' [my underlining.]

The first indicator that this has not happened is the actual status of IROs in local authorities. Most have not been team managers, and the salary scales advertised are usually well below those of experienced team managers. New IROs are often social workers with only a few years' experience who choose to work as an IRO instead of going into management or, perhaps, before doing so. Other IROs are the officers who previously reviewed children's cases under the old regulations, most of whom had also never been team managers. This was never a high status job. This lower status impacts on their potential to influence events in favour of a child when dealing with people significantly more senior in their own organisation.

As the guidance suggests, IROs need personal and professional authority to be able to do their job properly.

There is further evidence that local authorities have done little to support the new role. A recent survey [7] found that over half of employed IROs had other significant functions in the local authority and that most local authorities did not even call them by the title 'Independent Reviewing Officer'.

Their workloads, the average number of looked after children for each IRO, according to the same survey, meant that there was little opportunity to do more than travel to, attend and minute the regular LAC review meetings. This inevitably limits the IROs' potential to exercise their wider responsibilities.

Over 60% of local authorities had made no provision for IROs to have independent legal advice, in situations where the IRO may well be at odds with the local authority. This must undermine IROs' capacity to operate independently.

Few local authorities appear to involve IROs in the approval of care plans for court. So few authorities thought it necessary to furnish IROs with copies of care plans agreed at court, that the recent review [8] of the child care system had to make this a specific recommendation. Many IROs are still reviewing different care plans from those approved in care proceedings. One might ask why the children's social workers have not pointed this out; this simply highlights the considerable ignorance and confusion in some Children's Services Departments about the legal process.

Why has local authority management not embraced the new Regulations as a route to better care for looked after children?
Local authorities have no real experience of independent executive practitioners inside Children's Services. The nearest equivalents are the chairs of Child Protection (CP) conferences who gain much of their authority from the inter agency nature of CP (now safeguarding) work. Although they are usually regarded as senior members of staff with considerable powers, they do not, as IROs, have power to see litigation initiated against the local authority on behalf of a child. There are, though, useful comparisons to be made; they operate in arms' length units, they have continuity of responsibility for children on the CP Register, and they are consulted outside the conference cycle on issues concerning risk to children. However, independent CP chairs have been in existence in many local authorities for 20 or more years, and central government until very recently (and the media, still) made CP a priority over all else. It may therefore take a considerable time before IROs can achieve the same standing. They may be assisted by the fact that Safeguarding Boards (successors to Area Child Protection Committees) have a specific duty to consider the needs of looked after children.

IROs should be an asset for local authorities, able to identify areas of poor practice, inadequate resource allocation and inappropriate policies, but in few authorities is there any process by which the knowledge of IROs can be tapped for the benefit of all looked after children. IROs have been claimed as key players by central government in improving placement stability and educational opportunity [9] but local government does not always appear to have recognised this.

In few local authorities is there any communication protocol by which IROs can feed information about children in the local authority's care to senior management and councillors, who are meant, post Victoria Climbie [10], to be better informed of cases. There are also few local authorities which have instituted channels for IROs to be informed by social workers of any changes that might affect a looked after child, in spite of a duty to do so under the Regulations [11].

It is not just local authorities which have limited the impact of the Regulations; IROs appear to have contributed to this process themselves.

There is anecdotal but multi-sourced information that many IROs have not grasped that their role now is to be the child's reviewing officer. For example, many IROs chair some LAC reviews without the necessary people present, sometimes even without the child or parent, so as to satisfy the local authority's time requirements, rather than effectively reviewing the child's situation. This is to meet government targets, on which are based the award of stars and resources; hardly a definition of Independence from the local authority or a child centred approach.

The way that many authorities have used Special Guardianship can be seen as an example of their failure to embrace IROs and, at the same time, of how some IROs have not been up to the task of safeguarding children.

Special Guardianship Orders [12] (SGOs) count in central government's statistics as if they were adoptions. There are also considerable potential savings for the local authority when comparing an SGO with a care order. It is not surprising that SGOs have proved irresistible to local authorities when looking at long term fostering and kinship placements. In many cases an SGO is highly appropriate for the child. However, decisions have often been taken at a policy level by senior management with little knowledge of individual cases.

Such a change of status for a child must surely constitute 'a significant change of circumstances' [13] but I have been unable to find many local authorities where each case was first discussed with the IRO, so as to get an independent view of the possible impact on the child. Instead, I know of cases where the IRO has, on the instructions of local authority management, pressed for agreement at the LAC review to foster carers applying for an SGO, without themselves appreciating the implication of such a change in status for carer and child. (This may also indicate that many IROs do not meet the Guidance requirement of a 'good understanding of legal framework of planning for children' [14].)

I am aware of two cases in different authorities in recent months where the proposed change of status for the child has raised a number of unresolved issues which have destabilised the placement. In each case the IRO had not, in my view, approached the proposal from an independent child centred perspective and safeguarded the child's interests.

There are, of course, cases where the system has worked well. Some IROs have been involved in agreeing court care plans, have been consulted about possible changes in a child's situation between LAC review meetings, and have taken up cases with senior management and resolved them.

One London authority has a sophisticated and reportedly effective system of alerts so that management is kept informed of the impact of policy and resource allocation on looked after children, and IROs are informed of what is happening to 'their' looked after children. Such models could be widely adopted.

There are a number of simple steps that need to be taken to make the 2004 Regulations more effective. As always, 'simple steps' are often easier to record than to implement, but that should not discourage us.

  1. Local authority senior management and councillors need to be helped by central government to appreciate how IROs can better support and safeguard those children for whom the authority is the corporate parent (and how IROs can better help the local authority to avoid expensive and embarrassing litigation, sometimes many years off).
  2. IROs need to be called Independent Reviewing Officers – no euphemism will do.
  3. IROs should only work for the local authority as an IRO; not chairing CP conferences, adoption panels, investigating complaints or any other function, which can only serve to confuse them and the agency as to their proper role.
  4. Team managers require training to appreciate the scope and boundaries of the IRO's role and their duty to intervene on behalf of a child where necessary.
  5. IROs need to be appraised; this is obviously threatening and destabilising to some staff, but is nonetheless necessary if the role is to be effective. Those who do not meet the requirements of the 2004 Regulations will need to be trained appropriately, and, where necessary, redeployed and appropriate replacements appointed.
  6. The job of IRO will need to be made sufficiently attractive to managers to transfer into.
  7. Protocols in each authority need to be devised so IROs know whom they should approach when concerned about a looked after child.
  8. The managers whom IROs approach should be encouraged to see such approaches as potentially beneficial to the authority rather than a breach of normal hierarchical procedures.
  9. IROs need to be trained to appreciate their role as the child's reviewing officer, not primarily as a local authority bureaucrat. Never again should a review meeting take place without appropriate participation in order to meet target led deadlines.
  10. IROs must spend time with the child whose situation s/he is reviewing, so as to establish what she wants to happen. They must subsequently ensure the child fully understands what has been decided and, if the child disagrees, what she, or she and the IRO, can do.
  11. Any change in the care plans, which must include care plans in care proceedings, should be countersigned by the IRO.
  12. Independent legal advice needs to be available to IROs when they consider they need it. This should not be subject to managerial supervision.
  13. IROs should be encouraged to join appropriate professional organisations such as NAGALRO or BASW to gain professional support in their difficult role.
  14. Central government help should be given to support regional IRO support groups.
  15. Children's Guardians need to appreciate the proper role of IROs and collaborate with them appropriately during the period of their involvement in the case.
  16. Solicitors for children and family members need to feel able to approach IROs directly, unlike social workers, whom they should only approach via the legal department.

It is important, in my view, not to transfer IROs out of local authorities, as has been floated by CAFCASS [15]. CAFCASS's undermining of the Guardian service is a poor recommendation for any transfer there.

If IROs are to fulfil central government's hope that they can enhance the role of local authorities as corporate parents they can only do so from within those authorities.

It is very hard to act truly independently when working within such an agency, but it is vital for the future safeguarding of children in care that IROs and local authorities should struggle to get this right, supported by central government and others involved in the field.

Notes

  1. Re S (Minors) (Care Order: Implementation of Care Plan) in Re W (Minors) (Care Order: Adequacy of Care Plan) [2002] 2 A.C. 291
  2. Adoption and Children Act 2002, s.118
  3. Review of Children's Cases (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2004
  4. E.g.: Levy, Allan, QC, and Kahan, Barbara: The Pindown Experience and the Protection of Children: The Report of the Staffordshire Child Care Inquiry 1990, 1991, Staffordshire County Council
  5. Independent Reviewing Officers Guidance, Adoption and Children Act 2002, The Review of Children's Cases (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2004, DfES, 2004
  6. Ibid page 22
  7. The work of the Independent Reviewing Officer – a report of a survey of local authorities about the application of s118 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, September 2006
  8. Review of the Child Care Proceedings System in England and Wales – DCA / DfES – May 2006
  9. The contribution of IROs to the DfES Placement Stability and Improving Educational Attainment Programme – Mark Burrows, DfES, 6.7.05
  10. Victoria Climbie Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Lord Laming, January 2003
  11. Ibid, Reg 8A
  12. s.115 Adoption and Children Act 2002
  13. Ibid, Reg 8A
  14. Ibid, page 21
  15. CAFCASS response to Care Matters green paper, January 2007, para 27

Michael Griffith-Jones has been a social worker for over 30 years, practised as a Guardian for 22 years and acts from time to time as an Independent Reviewing Officer. He trains a wide range of professionals in child care matters, including IROs, and has written for a number of journals.