Independent Reviewing Officers – a better basis for change

Jonathan Dickens is professor of social work at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich. In 2012-14 he led a research study into care planning and the role of the independent reviewing officer.

His latest short article about IROs looks at some of the strengths and limitations of the IRO service. Jonathan draws on recent debates and reflects on the findings of the 2012-14 research study. He states that there is certainly room for improvement in specific cases and in the overall operation of the system, but suggests that some of the criticisms of IROs have not been founded on accurate knowledge and understanding.

Reference is made to the particularly ‘searing criticism’ of IRO practice in the judgment of Mr Justice Peter Jackson in the case of A and S v Lancashire County Council [2012] EWHC 1689 (Fam). The specific issues raised in respect of the the IRO are set out at paragraph 199 to 217 of that judgement and include the status of IROs, training, caseload, legal advice for IROs, advocacy for children and access to legal advice and Cafcass referrals by IROs.

As for some of the wider narratives and anecdotal accounts about the IRO role and value, Jonathan states that ‘not all the criticisms are fair or well founded’. Examples cited include Lord Justice McFarlane’s speech on ‘the balance between child protection and the right to family life’, delivered as the Bridget Lindley OBE Memorial Lecture in March 2017.

For ease, here is McFarlane’s critique:

That intervention of Starred Care Plans and the need for it was met, in part, by the introduction of the Independent Reviewing Officer in 2005, to act as a guardian of the care plan and, where necessary, trigger a return to court. My understanding is, and I will be corrected if I am wrong, that there have been no occasions where an IRO has brought a case back to court under the provisions.

Anecdotal accounts from around the country indicate that IROs are now rarely seen to be independent of the local authority by parents and others, and I have heard a litany of other causes of concern. This is a key aspect of the system. Once the orders are made, how they run and how fairly they run, and how they run in a way which keeps the rights of the family members in view, is crucial. It is the topic of my talk, but, in real life, this is very important and, if this key aspect of our system is indeed falling short of what is expected of it, what can be done to improve the situation?

A further concern added to the litany, is the practice, again, in some areas, of the Looked After Children Reviews (LAC Reviews) being held by the Independent Reviewing Officer in the foster home, so that it is thought not appropriate for the parents to attend.

There is without doubt room for improvement in specific cases and in the overall operation of the care system and the operation of the IRO role. Practice does not always live up to expectations, but Justice FcFarlane’s criticisms need to be countered by a more accurate, informed knowledge of the strengths and limitation of the IRO role.

As regards the location of Looked After Children Reviews, the IRO Handbook, which is statutory guidance in force since 2011,  makes clear at pages 16 – 17:

3.21  The review should take place in a venue where the child is most likely to feel relaxed and comfortable. First consideration should be given to the review taking place in the child’s placement. It may not be appropriate for professionals to be present throughout the meeting and consideration should be given in advance to when they should make their contribution. In some circumstances it may be more appropriate for the IRO to meet separately with members of the professional network and/or with the parents.

Critique of the IRO role needs to be based on a more informed understanding of the wider systems within which IROs operate including the statutory frameworks, practices, processes and practical realities. Crude measures of the IRO service based on numbers of cases which go to court are unhelpful – missing a bigger and much more nuanced picture.

Read Professor Jonathan Dickens article at source: Independent Reviewing Officers – myths and misunderstandings continue

The full report of the UEA research into care planning and the role of the independent reviewing officer is available free of charge on the website of the UEA Centre for Research on Children and Families. The website also has a research briefing and powerpoint presentations of the findings.

This article about IRO professional independence based on the research published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review in December 2016, is worth a read too: Independence and effectiveness: Messages from the role of Independent Reviewing Officers in England

Other related papers referred to in Jonathan’s piece include the No Good Options report. This pulls together the findings of the APPG’s latest Inquiry into children’s social care services in England in March 2017. Also mentioned for good reason is the recent report by the University of Bristol and Coram Voice, Our Lives, Our Care, 2017.

No Good Options 

The No Good Options report is the culmination of a year-long inquiry into children’s social care by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau. It brings together evidence about the current resourcing of children’s social services and changes in the nature and level of demand, to improve our understanding of the challenges facing under-performing children’s services, and how to address them.

The report warns of a lack of Government investment in children’s social care which has left councils struggling to keep up with rising demand.

Around 89% of senior managers said they found it increasingly difficult to provide children ‘in need’ with the support they required, including those with disabilities, families in crisis and those at risk of abuse and neglect.

The inquiry highlights a shift towards helping children at crisis point, particularly those at risk of abuse, and away from proactively helping families in need of additional support. This has led to poorer outcomes for children in need of help, with many being taken into care as a result.

The number of children on child protection plans has risen by over 29% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. The number of children being taken into care rose by 17% during this same period but despite these increased pressures local authority spending power has decreased by over 20% in the same period.

No Good Options warns of a postcode lottery in how law and policy relating to children is applied. Figures indicate councils are taking ‘wildly different’ approaches to early intervention and identification of ‘children in need’.

The inquiry chair, Tim Loughton points to ‘huge variation’ in the way in which local authorities decide to support the most vulnerable children:

Perhaps most strikingly, the proportion of children taken into care varies from just 22 per 10,000 in one local authority to 164 per 10,000 in another.

This cannot simply be explained by differences in deprivation – it points instead to variation in policy and practice.

Amongst the key findings it identifies that insufficient attention is still being given to children having a say in their care.

Many councils follow good practice in involving children in strategic decision- making, including through Children in Care Councils. However, the Inquiry heard that in many places children in care are not routinely involved in decisions about their own support. In some cases, children do not even understand why they are looked after by the local authority.

The report concludes with a set of twelve recommendations which include:

8. The Department for Education should support and incentivise local authorities
to improve participation practices so that vulnerable children play a meaningful role in their care.

9. Children’s participation entitlements, including to advocacy and support from Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), should be protected.

Download at source: No Good Options: Report of the Inquiry into Children’s Social Care in England

Our Lives, Our Care

This report by the University of Bristol and Coram Voice, Our Lives, Our Care, 2017 examines looked after children’s views on their well-being. It details all the findings from the first cohort of 611 children to complete the Bright Spots ‘Your Life, Your Care’ survey.

The aim of the Bright Spots project is to give Local Authorities a better understanding of the practices that contribute to children and young people flourishing in care. The overall vision is that all local authorities should be enabled and encouraged to adopt the best possible standards of practice for the children in their care, so that those children have a greater likelihood of reaching adulthood being able to fulfil their potential and play a full role in society.

The survey was run in six local authority areas. Age appropriate questionnaires (4-7 years, 8-10 years, and 11-18 years) were distributed to looked after children in schools. The response rates varied between 23% and 55%.

Key findings

  • The majority of children felt that being in care had improved their lives
  • Children care were as positive about the future as other children but, as would be expected given the often traumatic experiences that led to them being in care, they were more likely than other children to have low wellbeing.
  • Wellbeing decreased with age, particularly in girls

Being looked after was a positive intervention for most. The majority of children (83%) emphasised that being in care had improved their lives and that overall they had moderate levels of subjective well-being. Importantly, a larger proportion felt safer in their placements and liked school more than did children in the general population.

However, the findings also reveal an urgent need for local authorities and national decision makers to understand how their services impact on the children they support and how well the needs of children are being met, to ensure those services are responsive to children’s views and needs.

Download the Our Lives, Our Care: Key findings and policy recommendations booklet

Download the full report Our Lives Our Care: Looked after children’s views on their well-being


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