Alpha BiolabsFamily Law Week Email SubscriptionBerkeley Lifford Hall Accountancy Services

Assuring Quality in the Independent Reviewing Service for Looked After Children

Liz Gosling and Alison Williams, qualified social workers, consider the status of the independent reviewing officer and propose a framework to provide a truly independent and quality assured service.

It is five years since the implementation of the Review of Children’s Cases (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2004 came into force with the objective of providing greater independence in reviewing the care plans for looked after children and strengthening the planning arrangements for them and their families. The regulations and accompanying guidance addressed the independence of the role of the chair of the looked after review by the creation of the statutory role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IRO). It is the IRO  who must ensure the views and wishes of the child, alongside their best interests, are at the forefront of care planning and review. Models of employment for the IRO were proposed as well as the requirement for a local dispute process for raising concerns which included referral to CAFCASS, if the IRO considered there to have been a breach of a child’s human rights.

Throughout the five years questions have been raised about whether the objectives of the Regulations and Guidance (DfES 2004) are being achieved. Whilst there is clear evidence that children continue to drift for too long, to wait for a suitable placement or a clear plan to be implemented within the child’s timescales, there has to date been very limited recourse to CAFCASS.  

During this period, other changes have been made which have impacted on Local Authority care planning for looked after children. These include:

The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (regulations and guidance forthcoming) further strengthens the role of the IRO, requiring the IRO to monitor the progress of the care plan and its constituent parts between review meetings. The Act includes provision for the creation of an independent body to appoint and manage IROs, taking them out of the control of the Local Authority at a future date. Although the criteria for this change have yet to be established there is a consensus that the decision making process for this will consider any continuing evidence of poor care planning in local authorities, placement instability and a lack of response to the child’s views and needs.

In explaining the absence of recourse to CAFCASS, the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee report on Looked after Children (House of Commons 2009) raised concerns that IROs were not sufficiently independent of their employing local authority and that this made it difficult for them to raise objections. The Committee concluded that looked after children did not appear to understand the role of the IRO and did not see them as independent.

A further explanation proposed by Michael Griffith-Jones is that

‘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 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. The lower status impacts on their potential to influence events in favour of a child when dealing with people significantly more senior in their organisation.’
(What has happened to Independent Reviewing Officers? Griffith-Jones 2007)

A Department for Children, Schools and Families scoping survey asked questions about the caseloads of IROs which can range from one full time IRO post for every 40 looked after children to one for every 120 looked after children. Such a disparity in case loads suggests that there is little agreement as to the role and responsibilities of the post of IRO, beyond chairing the usually biannual looked after review meeting.

Whatever the explanation for the IRO Regulations and Guidance not meeting national expectations, the impact on looked after children of a failing IRO service can be devastating. The recent S v Rochdale [2008] EWHC 3283 (Fam) judgment recites severe criticism, made in pleadings on behalf of the Official Solicitor (but about which the judge made no findings), of the work of an individual IRO reviewing the care plan for a young girl who had no one exercising parental responsibility for her. It was alleged that she had experienced significant harm through the absence of a protective care plan which met her needs for education and family life in a secure and stable placement. The Official Solicitor described the IRO as ‘…largely impotent or supine…’

The Official Solicitor subsequently concluded that as an ‘accommodated’ child her basic human rights were not met and that this clear breach was not at any point pursued by her IRO.

With this in mind, there is clearly a requirement to consider how the conduct of the IRO is quality assured whilst ensuring that the IRO service delivers to the child and his or her family the independence of care planning and review promised in the Regulations. Any quality assurance arrangement would therefore need to promote the independence of the role of the IRO, the regulatory status of the review process and the importance of a child centred meeting. 
The rest of this article considers what is required to deliver an independent “whistle-blowing” service located within a Local Authority and proposes a number of ways in which such a service could be internally quality assured.

(The model draws on the work of one London local authority (Islington) that has been developed over the past five years.)

In order to deliver the objectives of the IRO regulations there are a number of key foundations required in each service.

These include: 

A system for the IRO to raise concerns within the Local Authority prior to referral to CAFCASS – a local dispute resolution process
It is the task of the Local Authority to put in place a clear system for the IRO to raise their concerns, and to ensure that this system is respected and prioritised by  managers in order that issues raised are resolved at the lowest possible level, efficiently and speedily.

The IRO is not an advocate for the child but must demonstrate, as the Select Committee illustrated in its report, that he or she can hear the child’s views and take them into consideration when a review approves a care plan. This also applies to the other people in the child’s life.

The IRO’s decision to challenge the plan or the work of the local authority/carer etc is theirs and it may not be in accordance with the child’s wishes, but will, in the IRO’s view, be in accordance with the best interests and welfare of the child, as well as their human rights. As case law has shown, these can all too easily get lost in the bureaucracy and processes of the Local Authority.  The IRO must record and explain their reasons for taking the action.

In using the local dispute resolution process the IRO should direct their concerns as to how the local authority’s action / inaction may breach the child’s human rights. This usually relates to:

Article 3 – the article governing prohibition of torture provides for the right of the child to protection
Article 6 – right to a fair trial
Article 8 – right to family life.

It is recognised that the IRO may have preference for one care plan over another for a child.  However, the IRO local dispute resolution process will be used if is there is the possibility of the child’s human rights being breached in the execution of the plan. This includes where the IRO is of the view that the assessment was not comprehensive or adequate (involved the right people, addressed the right issues); the proposed care plan does not logically arise from the assessment; or the care plan proposed does not appear relevant or sustainable.

Whatever the issue is, what is important is that the IRO’s concerns are resolved at the lowest level and within agreed and monitored timescales. 

Advocacy for the child and agreed measures to promote the participation of children and parents in review meetings 
To balance the work of the IRO and that of the Local Authority there should be in place a strong system of advocacy for the child which enables them to ensure that their views are carefully represented and considered, and if necessary legal advice sought for the child in their own right. This is particularly important where the child may need greater protection or where the child may have a right to compensation against the authority. Equally the IRO needs to be satisfied that the Local Authority has met its responsibility under the regulations to prepare and consult with both the child and their parents ahead of each review meeting; that their views will inform the meeting and that there are arrangements in place which will support the IRO meeting separately with both the child and parents ahead of the meeting.   

Agreed arrangements for pre- and, if required, post-review case holder consultation and updating
In order for the review to be a process rather than an event the IRO must be able and be expected to access case records and make arrangements to discuss the progress of the care plan with the social worker between review meetings. 

An agreed list of significant changes 
The 2004 regulations do not provide a definition of what constitutes a significant change which the IRO must be advised of. In the absence of such guidance it is critical the Local Authority and the IRO service have an agreed list of what constitutes a significant change which the case holder must inform the IRO about and the infrastructure to deliver that information in a timely fashion. The purpose is for the IRO to determine whether this is such a significant change that the review meeting should be brought forward. 

A clear protocol for the communication between the IRO with the Court appointed Guardian and the LA legal services
The expectations of communication are now set out in the Linked Care and Placement Order Updated Guidance (SCFJC 2008), the CAFCASS practice note (2007) and the guidance from the Ministry of Justice and DCSF (2009). Despite this, some local authorities are continuing to discuss whether the IRO has access to court papers. It is important that the LA has an agreed protocol for forwarding all court directions to the allocated IRO in a timely fashion and that in the absence of the Guardian at the review there is process for forwarding the Chair’s report to the Guardian. 

The protocol needs to ensure the allocated IRO and Guardian establish contact upon appointment and that the IRO’s views of the LA care plan are known by the Guardian including the IRO accessing the local dispute resolution process.    

Agreed arrangements for the IRO to report to the relevant managers on the organisation and conduct of the review – outside raising individual concerns
The 2004 Regulations brought to an end one of the more obvious ways in which a manager appraised the work of the allocated social worker – the chairing of the child’s looked after review.  In the absence of the line manager at many of these meetings a range of reporting arrangements variously called ‘standards’ reports or ‘monitoring’ forms have been developed. By requiring the IRO to complete such a report after the review meeting, the line manager of the social worker can obtain an independent but informed view on the timeliness, availability and quality of the key reports and plans, the scheduling of pre review discussions as well as the participation of parents and the child. Should these reports be regularly aggregated, areas for improvements in practice can easily be identified by management. 

Independent legal advice
Independent legal advice should be available to the allocated IRO. The IRO is often alone in evaluating the local authority’s care plan and is reliant on their own knowledge, experience and professional judgment. It is therefore important there is easy access to an experienced child care solicitor independent of the Local Authority.    

Clarity about the status of outcomes from reviews
The IRO Regulations in 2004 did little to clarify the status of outcomes from reviews. Are they recommendations or decisions? In the absence of central government guidance it is important the local authority has a clear position on this matter which ensures that the outcomes from reviews are progressed within the prescribed timescales.  

Critical learning groups
These are an example of the independent consultation available to IROs established in one Local Authority. They are independently facilitated with the attendance of the IRO required as part of their contract with the local authority.

The groups are held every 6 weeks and comprise 8-9 IROs. They are confidential within the boundaries of serious concerns about practice being referred to the manager of the service.

The focus of the group is on the IROs’ practice, reviews or matters they have found difficult or concerning with the objective of seeking ways to resolve these. The group helps to keep the child as the focus for the IRO in the face of some powerful views and interests, encouraging, where appropriate, the IRO to use the ‘alert’ system to raise and resolve concerns.

The group also addresses the values of the IRO, sharing knowledge and experience and bringing in expertise. There is a training or developmental aspect to the group and IROs use the group to demonstrate their continuing professional development.

The group differs from supervision as the IROs are responsible for their own learning and actions. Themes are explored and returned to. The group develops its own work programme, held by the facilitator and there is an annual, not independent, evaluation of the groups which informs decisions about its future and its conduct.

The relationship between the manager of the service and the IROs and the facilitator is that of commissioner, end user and provider. The facilitator feeds back to the manager of the service generalised concerns about the systems of the local authority or themes which the group would like the authority to address.

Generalised messages from the other quality assurance processes are fed back to the facilitator by the manager of the service. The manager maintains the boundaries of the service and the quality assurance processes; advises IROs when they are acting outside of their responsibilities; agrees to independent legal advice for the IRO; advises about policies and procedures and acts as an interface/intermediary between IROs and managers when required. 

Business Meetings with the manager of the IRO service
Team meetings or their equivalent need to be held to assist the IRO in keeping up to date with changes and developments in the department and the consequent effects for their work.

Administrative support for the reviewing process
This can support the independence of the review process as well as contributing to monitoring and quality assurance by ensuring that reviews are held on time, records processed and invitations and consultation documents sent. 

With the above systems in place, the following complementary processes have been identified as contributions to assuring the quality of the work of the reviewing service. It is clear that with such a complex web of responsibilities, a number of elements are needed in order to provide the required confidence in the service. These should include: 

Tracking and analysis of use of the local dispute resolution process 
In order to make use of the local dispute resolution process the local authority needs to be able to adequately track the issues raised by IROs, to ensure timely response and to identify any patterns in teams or issues. Such tracking will also identify IROs who are making use of the local dispute resolution process.     

Feedback from the Advocacy Service for children
Reports from the advocacy service concerning care planning should be compared with and examined against the issues raised by IROs and review records to ensure that children’s views are being heard and responded to. Any patterns of allocation of advocates and independent legal advice for children can be also identified. 

Schedule of observations of the review by the manager of the Independent Reviewing Service 
The chairing of a complex meeting such as a looked after review is a lone activity with limited opportunity for feedback from others (other than the participants). Regular arrangements to observe the conduct of review meetings, with the child’s permission, ensure verbal and written feedback is provided to the IRO on their chairing skills. Suggestions are offered for managing the review differently and ensuring the child feels listened to.

Clear and simple feedback routes for all participants
The importance of the review process requires the Local Authority to provide  clear routes through which children, parents and social workers can have their say on the organisation and conduct of the review meeting. In the context of work being monitored and assessed, it is critical that social workers see a process which is open to routine feedback and the children are clear that, as it is their meeting, their views will be sought, respected and used to improve practice.    

Audit Framework for Chair’s Reports
The report from the Chair is likely to be the document used by managers seeking an update on the progress of the child’s plan, auditors checking on compliance and children reflecting on their history. For this reason it is important that there are clear standards set out for completion of the Chair’s report and they are subject to evaluation with written feedback to the IRO on ways in which to change and improve practice. 

Annual Report of the Independent Reviewing Service
The IRO annual report to the Local Authority is a requirement of the 2004 Guidance. It provides a clear opportunity for senior managers of the local authority and elected members to consider the messages from the IRO service and should therefore be a valued contribution to their scrutiny function as well as the future planning and development of services. The report should also be shared and used by partner agencies. Without an agreed national format for such reports it is important that the Local Authority is clear that it is a public document which provides an independent overview and analysis of the strengths and the areas for development in the looked after service.     

The objectives of the IRO service in England are rightly ambitious. The service seeks to ensure that each child has in place a high quality care plan which meets their needs and that this is comprehensively and appropriately reviewed to ensure it continues to respond to the child’s changing circumstances. Clearly for some children this has not happened and the consequences of this are very serious for them.

There is currently no guidance concerning caseloads for IROs. In fact across local authorities there is considerable variation. This variation will need to be resolved if the expectation of continuous review and challenge is to be met consistently across the country. Moreover, over the past five years the requirements that the IRO monitors have increased significantly. The current guidance imposes an expectation that the IRO not only collaborate but also remain independent and challenge. These expectations are contradictory and can lead to confusion for children, social workers and all others involved in the care planning and review process. The status of the review as a decision making meeting is not clear.

In the absence of a comprehensive evaluation of the IRO Service as it operates in England (there has been an evaluation in Wales - Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (2009)), referrals to CAFCASS have been cited as a key performance indicator. However, local authorities report that they expect problems to be satisfactorily resolved prior to this stage. Regardless of this, there remains a need for IRO services to be independently evaluated against agreed quality performance indicators.

What is important at a local level is that all the key stakeholders have confidence in the IRO service and know that it is working for the child.  To achieve this there needs to be agreed (possibly nationally) quality assurance processes that are designed to help IROs analyse and improve their practice whilst preserving independence. It is only then that senior managers will have the necessary confidence that each IRO’s practice is subject to regular scrutiny and evaluation and that the executive of the Local Authority is confident that there are robust systems in place which will minimise the risk of litigation for poor services on behalf of the child.

There is an opportunity to improve the service with forthcoming new regulations and guidance and to consider what the key foundations are for an effective IRO service and what are the required quality assurance arrangements. The best practice of local authorities, as well as the experiences of children who have been failed by the system, should inform the writing of these. 

Liz Gosling, a qualified social worker, held the post of Manager of Islington IRO Service from 2002 to 2009. She currently manages the Children in Care service for Waltham Forest.
Alison Williams, a qualified social worker, works as a freelance social work consultant and is an employed IRO for a London borough.  

CAFCASS Practice Note (2007) CAFCASS and the Work of Independent Reviewing Officers

Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (2009) National Review of Independent Reviewing Officer Services 2008-2009: Overview Report

Department for Education and Skills: 2004 Independent Reviewing Officers Guidance Adoption and children Act 2002 and The Review of Children’s Cases (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2004

S (by the Official Solicitor) V Rochdale MBC & Anor [2008] EWHC 3283 (Fam)

Griffith-Jones M. (03/07/07) What has happened to Independent Reviewing Officers? Family Law Week

House of Commons, Children, Schools and Families Committee (2009)
Looked-after Children Select Committee Report London: The Stationery Office Limited

Ministry of Justice (2008) Public Law Outline Guide to Case Management in Public Law Proceedings

Ministry of Justice and Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) Preparing for Care and Supervision Proceedings: A best practice guide for use by all professionals involved with children and families pre-proceedings and in preparation for applications made under section 31 of the Children Act 1989

Office of Public Sector Information (1998) Human Rights Act 1998 

Office of Public Sector Information (2008) Children and Young Persons Act 2008

The Safeguarding Committee of the Family Justice Council (2008) Linked Care and Placement Order Updated Guidance