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Care review recommends IROs are scrapped

Independent Reviewing Officers would be scrapped under recommendations from the independent review into children’s social care.

Independent Reviewing Officers were introduced in 2004 (Adoption and Children Act 2002) to ensure that the care plan put in place by the local authority meets the needs of the child in care. The IRO role has since been expanded following concerns that there would be a lack of independent oversight of care planning, the report said.

“However, it has become clear that the role as originally designed has not solved the problems facing overstretched services. As local authority employees, IROs lack the independence to challenge poor social work practice, whilst also not having enough meaningful contact with children to champion their wishes and interests effectively. The review has heard from too many children in care who do not even know the name of their own reviewing officer,” added the report.

Concerns around the role of the IRO were raised by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers in The Foster Care in England Review. The review said “despite the commendable commitment of some individuals, we saw little to recommend the IRO role and believe local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, reinvesting savings in front line staffing”.

The independent care review published this week highlights that the nature of the IRO role means they often only interact with children around the time of care review meetings, which can be as infrequently as once every six months.

The IRO role can be taken up with providing casework support to social work teams and ensuring processes are completed in a timely manner. Whilst this can be important, this aspect of the role means IROs often provide a support service for overstretched local authority teams, rather than acting as an independent champion focused only on children’s best interests. At the same time, IROs frequently report supporting more than 70 children at any one and it is unlikely that effective support can ever be provided by one person to so many children.

As in The Foster Care in England Review, the independent care review highlighted how they had seen direct evidence of individual IROs working hard to support children in care. However, the review argues that there should be greater expectation and emphasis placed on the role of the social worker, who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the care plan and developing a meaningful relationship with the child.

The review therefore recommends that both the role of the IRO and Regulation 44 visitors should be scrapped, in favour of an opt out independent advocacy service for children in care.

Regulation 44 visitors are commissioned by children’s homes to conduct monthly visits to a children’s home to determine whether the home is being run effectively and children are being kept safe.

“Whilst this is an important function in principle, in practice Regulation 44 Visitors are appointed by the homes they oversee. The review has seen little evidence that Regulation 44 Visitors act independently, have a meaningful relationship with them, or that home managers and Directors of Children’s Services will regularly take action on the findings of the reports,” said the care review.

The review suggests a much simpler and stronger system for giving children a voice, based on the following principles:

  1. Expect trained, qualified social workers to act in the best interests of children. We trust social workers to make some of the most important and difficult decisions possible. We expect that, during the course of making those decisions, social workers will develop relationships with the children and families they work with. Through the recommendations in the review, social workers will be able to spend more time with children and families and that, combined with the recommendation for improved professional development, will create more confidence in the social work profession.
  2. Genuinely independent advocacy for children in care should be opt-out, not opt-in. It is paramount that children in care have access to an adult that is unequivocally on their side and solely focused on making sure they are heard, particularly when things go wrong with the care they receive. To ensure this is effective, advocacy needs to be completely independent from the local authority and those agencies that deliver care services, so that young people have trust that their views are being heard and are likely to be acted upon.
  3. The gravity of the decision to remove children from their parents needs an independent second opinion. CAFCASS guardians play an important role in ensuring children understand these rights, and are appointed by the court to help assist judges in their decision making. It is evident that the judiciary finds the evidence provided by guardians valuable in coming to final decisions.

The review has concluded that three changes are required so that the system can adhere closely to these principles.

  • Legislation should be amended to remove the role of IROs and Regulation 44 Visitors, to be replaced with an independent opt-out advocacy service made available to all children going through family group decision making processes, court proceedings and in care.
  • Secondly, advocates should take on the functions currently undertaken by Regulation 44 Visitors to report on the quality of care provided in children’s homes. For children in residential or secure settings this will mean that they need access to an advocate.
  • Thirdly, care planning meetings should be chaired by the manager of the social worker holding the case (or another experienced social worker), but no significant decisions should be made at a care review meeting without input from the advocate, unless the child has explicitly chosen to represent themselves.

The review has explored three delivery models for independent advocacy that the government consider when implementing this recommendation and recommends that expanding the role of the Children’s Commissioner for England.

“The Children’s Commissioner would need to determine how best to deliver advocacy across England. The office would be given powers to escalate individual children’s cases back to the court if it was deemed that there were failings in the care plan. To ensure recurrent themes found by advocates are being highlighted and addressed by local authorities, the Children’s Commissioner would produce an annual advocacy report. In addition, children will be given the right to request that their advocate attends and makes representation to the court on their behalf, in any proceedings which affect them,” the report concluded.

A statement from Article 39 said: “Removing independent reviewing officers (IROs) from all children in care is a drastic and dangerous move. IROs are experienced social workers who scrutinise local authorities’ care and decision-making in respect of individual children. They were introduced to make sure there is an experienced social worker not connected to the child’s care who holds the local authority to account.”

The National Youth Advocacy Service said: “NYAS is delighted that children in England who enter care, or at other key moments in their care journey, will be automatically connected with an independent advocate. This professional will explain what advocacy is, and will offer their services, as is the statutory requirement in Wales.”

“The removal of Regulation 44 and the IRO (Independent Reviewing Officer) role presents a double-edged sword. On one hand, it will reinforce the role of independent advocates who support young people. However, it also presents the danger of diluting opportunities for safeguarding children and young people,” a statement from the charity added.

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