The role of IRO (Independent Reviewing Officers) will not be scrapped as suggested in the national fostering stocktake which was published earlier this year.
Foster Care in England Review, carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, found that “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 real issue is whether, rather than spending large amounts of money checking that children are being appropriately placed and cared for in the care system, we should invest that money in more frontline and line management staff to make that happen. The estimated potential savings for reinvestment could be anything from £54 to £76 million or more,” the stocktake added.
The proposal was criticised by the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, Nagalro and the children’s commissioner for England.
However, in its response to the stocktake and the education select committee’s inquiry into foster care, the government has pledged to work with organisations representing Independent Reviewing Officers and local authorities to consider how the role of IROs can be put to best effect in the current system and under existing legislation.
The response notes that while the variability of practice nationally is well known, there is potential for IROs to bring about significant practice improvements, alongside their role in ensuring that young people experience the best care from their fostering service.
“Where IROs are valued and listened to, they provide a legitimate and respected challenge function for individual children’s care plans and the wider service delivery. We want to iron out the inconsistencies, where these serve only to undermine the function of the IRO and to ensure that where practice differs, it is for good reason,” said the government response.
Publishing the government’s response, Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said: “We want every child in foster care to have a loving, stable home and trusted relationships so they can have the ‘normal’ life they desperately want and experience the same opportunities as other children.
“We also want to support and empower foster parents to make the daily decisions they would for their own children and make sure they receive the recognition they deserve for their incredible work,” he added.
He outlined that foster families will also be empowered to make more day-to-day decisions in the best interests of the children in their care, including simple but important things like being able to take children to get their haircut, allowing them to go on school trips or to be able to go over to friends’ houses.
The Department for Education will also explore the ways in which digital technology can enhance the foster care system and consider how it could help tackle challenges such as recruiting more families to become foster parents and have access to training and resources to support these families.
The DfE will also publish guidance for foster families around physical affection after the stocktake and select committee’s inquiry noted that Department for Education guidance and regulations are “silent on physical affection” and urged the department to make it clear that, unless it is unwelcome to the child, foster carers should not curb their natural instincts to demonstrate personal warmth.
In its response, the government said that it would amend guidance to make it clear that foster families feel able to demonstrate personal and physical affection to children in their care and said this would feature in any Quality Standards for foster care in the future.
The government’s response sets out six priority areas for the government’s vision for a better care system, driven directly by children’s needs and views.
These priority areas include:
- Improving the experience of children in foster care – guidance for foster families on physical affection will made clearer and social workers will be urged to help children in foster care have contact with loved ones.
- Greater stability for children in care – a new training package will be created for social workers to help more children have long-term foster placements and a new national board will be set up to promote better life chances for children in care.
- Empowering foster families – working with councils to help foster families to make more day-to-day parenting decisions and explore ways digital technology can support foster families’ training.
- Driving improvements in fostering practice – working with a group of councils and agencies to develop best practice for foster care and reviewing guidance to make it clearer on practice issues.
- Better ways of matching children with families – funding new approaches to commission foster placements for children.
The fostering stocktake had suggested that local authorities should not presume that placing sibling groups in foster care together was in the interests of all the children in that group. This recommendation was made despite Family Rights Group research which found even though 80% of looked after children have siblings, only 37% are placed with them in foster care.
The government responded that: “Section 22C of the 1989 Act stipulates that where a sibling of a child in care is also accommodated by the LA, where practicable they should be placed together, provided it is in the interests of each child. Often it will be in the best interest of siblings’ well-being to be placed together but there is no presumption in law that this will always be the case. This is why it is essential that local authorities make an individual assessment of each child as part of their care plan.”
Rachel Dickinson, Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “The five ambitions outlined in the response are difficult to argue with as is the focus on advocacy, on the smarter use of contact and the use of fostering as a respite option for children and families at times of crisis. We await further information about the role, remit and membership of the new national stability forum for children’s social care and its interface with the adoption and residential care leadership boards as well as the network of fostering trailblazers who will test new ways of working.”
However she warned that while the importance of placement and social worker stability is raised a number of times, the plans outlined by the government will not address the underlying drivers of instability including a national shortage of foster carers and of social workers.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “The government is right to make stability its top priority for children in foster homes, but it must follow through on these ambitions with action. Foster carers must be given help and training to deal with issues like children’s mental health problems, so they can provide the best support to vulnerable children who often have very complex needs.
“I am pleased the government agrees with the recommendations made in the Narey review that foster parents should be given more freedom to make day to day decisions, and I have long called for foster parents to be allowed to give physical affection to children, if that is what the child wants. It is also right that IROs are being retained.
“As our own research has shown, many children are still moving around the care system too frequently, preventing them from building the settled and strong relationships they need as they are growing up and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and harm. This must change so that every child growing up in a foster family receives the stability, support, love and care they need and deserve,” she added.
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Looking after vulnerable children is one of the most important things that councils do. The care that children and young people receive can change lives and be the difference between a future where someone can fulfil their potential or not, which is why we are keen to work with the Department to implement the recommendations in this report, so that we can make sure this is the case for all children in care.
“However, councils are currently supporting record numbers of children and young people through the care system. Ninety children a day entered care in the last year, and councils saw the biggest annual increase of children in care since 2010. This is against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts to local authority budgets.
“While commitments in this response, in particular to support better commissioning and improve understanding of costs across different providers, will help to make sure available funding is spent in the best way possible, this will not plug the £3 billion funding gap facing children’s services by 2025. The government urgently needs to commit to fully funding these services if it is serious about protecting children and young people and making sure they have the best possible experiences and opportunities,” she concluded.