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Independent reviewing officers use collaborative methods to fulfil their role

New study investigates how the IRO’s role has evolved

A research report on care planning and the role of the independent reviewing officer has been published by the University of East Anglia Centre for Research on Children and Families.

The research highlights the realities of practice, showing the considerable needs of many of the children and their families, the challenges of care planning and the variety of tasks that IROs undertake. These often go beyond the role as portrayed by the government guidance. The report also discusses the local authority and inter-agency contexts of care planning, the dilemmas and benefits of involving children, young people and parents in the review process, and the nature of IROs' 'independence'.

The research was carried out in 2012-14, and involved a case file study of 122 cases of children in care in four local authorities. The children had a range of legal statuses, ages and circumstances. There were also in-depth interviews with social workers (on 54 of the cases), independent reviewing officers (54), young people (15) and parents (15). There were multi-professional focus groups in each of the four areas, and two focus groups with young people who were or had been in care. There were also nationally distributed questionnaires for IROs, children's services managers and children's guardians.

Jonathan Dickens, Professor of Social Work at the University of East Anglia and the lead investigator on this study, said:

"IROs have been criticised for not being sufficiently independent and challenging of local authorities, but our study shows that it's important to look at the way the job is actually being undertaken, and understand the reasons why it has evolved the way it has. Many of the challenges facing the care system are to do with shortage of resources, in local authorities and other agencies. In this context, challenge on its own may not be enough to move things forward. So the role of the IRO has developed to combine scrutiny with more collaborative ways of working – and the government guidance expects them to try informal approaches first. There may sometimes be a need for more forceful action, and at times this didn't seem to happen; but there were also examples of IROs doing that. But most important, constructive help is also a form of challenge, and often more effective. In order to improve the care system and care planning, it is important to know what happens in practice, and understand why, because then changes can be more strategic and targeted."

The full report, a research briefing and two powerpoint presentations summarising the main findings are available for free download at the  UEA website.