The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the National IRO Managers Partnership.
Guest post by Ian Dickson on June 3, 2018
I am a care experienced person. I am also a social worker, and one who spent years managing and then inspecting residential services.
One of the things I have observed over the years is the movement of young people around the care system. I have frequently met the same child in different children’s homes managed by the same company as they were transferred between homes within the company. I have frequently seen the same child in different children’s homes within the same authority as they were moved by virtue of having reached a certain age at which point the authority thought they would be better placed elsewhere more suited to that age. I have inspected children’s care files as part of my inspection role and seen the long list of placements many young people have experienced as they wind their often weary way around our tortuous care system.
To the professional, each placement the child has is a ‘fresh start’. To the child, they need to learn a new hierarchy, new rules and new expectations being made of them. They need to get to know a new carer or carers, settle in a new area and possibly start at a new school. They need to be alert to recognise new threats and opportunities. They need to form new relationships and work to maintain older ones. They need to deal once more with being a ‘newbie’ and seek to gain a place in the peer group. So many life changes to make, and so many times they have to be made by so many children.
When children move into a new placement, the move may be seen by professionals as a new part of the child’s life a new episode of care often having little or connection or relevance to the episode before. As one placement opens, the previous one closes and all the people, places and experiences related to that placement are filed away. There could be no ongoing link whatsoever between the new and past people and placements as the system moves on. OK, there might be a ‘memory box’ or a ‘life story book’ to offer some continuity to the young person, but these artefacts can also find their way into files, rarely to be opened again.
To those who work in these placements, this is a ‘new kid’, a new admission who is getting a new start, a positive new opportunity. Probably not so to the child. To the child it might be just one more stopping point on the conveyor belt that is care. Another set of faces, strangers expecting the child to conform and do as they’re told. Relationships formed in earlier placements and other locations are often abandoned, and life in care becomes a series of care episode ‘chunks’. The child will be expected to trust and confide in the new carers, even though these might be just one more set of carers in a long line. With each one, trust and the ability and wish to relate diminish a little more. When the child approaches 18 (or in some cases, over 16) they are expected to move into ‘independence’, facing a whole new set of support workers, and often losing more meaningful relationships.
As though these changes and disruptions are not enough, changes in social worker are increasingly frequent, and each new year a child in care could see a child in a different placement with a different social worker. It is ironic that, at a time when ‘permanency’ for care experienced children is seen as increasingly important, so many children face frequently changing placements and key people in their lives. Is it any surprise so many children and young people feel alienated from the care system that controls their lives?
Speaking with fellow care experienced people, many remark about not feeling part of their care, not feeling consulted or cared for and not having care and aftercare plans that meet their needs as they perceive them. This was one of the driving forces that led to the call for a conference for care experienced people of all ages “The care experience – past, present…& future?” scheduled to take pace at Liverpool Hope University on 26th April 2019. Care experienced people want a care system that is responsive to their needs, opinions and aspirations. They want to be consulted, heard and be true partners in their own care.
In my personal view the IRO can play a critical role in this process. In a care system with a changing carousel of carers, sometimes the most consistent figure in the life of the child in care is the IRO. The IRO role, when operating properly, offers a bridge across the conveyor belt of placements, a constant support for the child. The IRO can be the link between previous and current placements and ensure that care planning reflects what the child wants, as well as what the social workers say that the child needs. The IRO must be the advocate for the child at reviews and ensure that valued relationships, vital social and community links and family contacts are not sacrificed too readily in the face of limited resources or emergency placements. It is the IRO’s job to ask “Why?” and to expect, indeed insist upon, coherent answers.
However, if the IRO is to be credible to the child, they must work for the child, not the local authority. As an inspector, I have sat in children’s reviews and listened to social work managers tell the officiating IRO what options were or were not open to them. It is the iRO’s role to identify with the child and the social worker what is the most appropriate outcome from a review based upon the evidence of assessment. If local authorities choose not to implement the IRO-approved outcome of a review, this should be recorded and form part of data provided to Ofsted when they inspect local authority performance. For this reason, I believe that IROs must be independent of and based away from the local authority.
In my view, if the IRO is to be effective, they must take an overview of the child’s care career and see the long-term view. They cannot be neutral. In partnership with the child, the IRO must satisfy themselves that the placement or strategy fit into a coherent life plan that provides the child with the safest place to live, opportunities, skills, education, resources and preparation to return to the community in due course equipped to enjoy a fulfilling life? Does it protect valued and valuable relationships? Does the child recognise it as desirable? If not, it is up to the IRO to challenge. The IRO is the first line of advocacy to ensure that the issues raised by care expereinced people prior to our conference next April are addressed.
I have long advocated (and included in an earlier paper related to the ‘Staying Close’ initiative being piloted by the Department for Education,) that IROs and Regulation 44 visitors must link up with Ofsted to ensure that the views of children in care are heard throughout the year and not just at inspections. Ofsted should consult IROs at inspections. Young people placed in ‘Staying Close’ placements post 18 years of age should still be reviewed under the chairmanship of the IRO and their placements subject to Regulation 44 visits and Ofsted inspections. In this way, residential provision and supported lodging placements for young people who have left care will still be monitored and seen to be fit for purpose.
There has been debate recently about the need for IROs. Some social work managers feel they are unnecessary and their job could be absorbed into management monitoring. With both my care leaver and my inspector hat on, I am firmly of the view that we dare not remove the IRO role. To do so would place young people at risk of inadequate care and placement in the face of austerity.
Instead, I would enhance and strengthen the role of the IRO, whilst making them more independent. This I believe, is what young people in care need.
Guest post by Ian Dickson | June 2018
Event Flyer for posting and sharing: “The care experience – past, present…& future?”
Watch this space: A conference for care experienced people
Ashley John-Baptiste, who was in care himself, reports: Leaving care: Life alone at 18
Guest post | My thoughts on the role of the IRO | By Ian Dickson | Twitter comments
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Replying by @IDickson258: The IRO role is vital in order to ensure young people in care settings get good quality care. I argue the role can be strengthened to improve care further, & also introduced with Reg 44s to ensure #stayingclose arrangements in future remain truly child centred & true to the ideal
Reply by @Rue_Franklin: Ian I thought your piece was very helpful in picking out some really salient and positive aspects that IRO role can bring. We should never forget the care experiences that lead to the role being created.
Reply by @IDickson258: Thank you. One of the advantages of ageing is the benefit of remembering how things were before. It was worse than it is now.The IRO role when carried out diligently can be pivotal to ensuring kids get quality care. They don’t always get it right, but that is work in progress.
Reply by @Rue_Franklin: I couldn’t agree more. Sadly IRO’s cannot always get it right; but at worst do no harm. When they are effective they can make a huge difference. Above all tho I think the continuity of relationships is powerful and meaningful.
Reply by @IDickson258: I agree entirely