Over the past 20 years research has painted a consistent picture of the difficulties in sustaining good practice in care planning and reviews for looked after children (LAC) Thomas, (2011) and Bijleveld et al. (2013).
The biggest challenges have been:
In response to these challenges the role of the independent reviewing officer (IRO) was developed, at first informally and then under statutory provision. In England, the 2010 Regulations consolidated the role of the IRO, who is responsible for ensuring that plans are regularly reviewed and properly implemented, and has a particular responsibility for engaging with children and enabling them to take part in the process.
Until recently there had been no research into the impact of the IRO on practice. However, a recently completed study by the NCB goes some way to filling the gap (Jelicic et al., 2014). While the research does not enable firm conclusions to be drawn about the difference made by the IRO in comparison to previous practice (because too much time has passed and too many other changes have taken place), it does give some good indications of their impact.
The authors claim that IROs have had their greatest impact in making sure that a child’s care plan is reviewed in a timely fashion.
“This was one of the reasons why the IRO service was created in the first place, and just because timely reviews could now be taken for granted in most cases, their role in ensuring that this happens should not be underestimated,” it stated.
IROs were also seen as having had an ongoing influence on cases, particularly in ensuring that the care planning process focused on permanency and was child-centred and evidence-based.
“Participants’ accounts showed what difference IROs could make when they operated as intended, but also their limited ability to make a difference when the service was not implemented effectively”.
That said, the research revealed wide variations in practice.
There was a shared understanding that IROs need to have, not only a child-centred approach, but also an ongoing engagement with a case in order to assure quality in care planning. Despite this, the research found that many IROs did not actively engage with all cases between reviews.
Also, IROs in some areas had insufficient hours to carry out a review, and the immediate pre- and post-review tasks, properly. Formal processes for raising issues and challenging poor practice did not always work particularly well and were not yet “culturally” accepted by social work teams.
Children’s experiences varied greatly. It appeared that a good relationship with an IRO was crucial in children’s understanding of the IRO’s role in the care planning process.
Some social workers reported that IROs did not spend enough time with children to prepare them for reviews and were not creative in the ways they engaged them.
The report suggests that “processes to enable IROs to engage and influence cases require considerable fine-tuning, with a national framework provided to support the development of local protocols” (Jelicic et al., 2014: 9).
Thomas and Percy-Smith (2012) found that Children in Care Councils had a major potential contribution to make to quality of services, but that this could not be left to participation workers alone. There was a need for more “joined-up working” between social workers- with their responsibility for taking account of the wishes and feelings of individual children, and participation workers- who promote collective engagement, often at the level of a whole local authority.
Impact on practice
It is worth reflecting on the importance of planning and review for children and young people who are looked after. When we accept responsibility for corporate parenting we have an obligation to ensure that all our decisions and actions are centred on what is best for this particular child.
The challenges in keeping processes child-centred, especially in a context of austerity, are too great to be met by one person alone: social workers, IROs and managers have to work together to promote good, effective and ethical practice. The same professionals must also work together to ensure that children and young people can be fully involved in plans and reviews.
Joint guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (NICE/SCIE, 2010) recommended that Directors of Children’s Services should:
Questions for social workers
Planning and reviewing for looked after children in the UK is now governed by The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, The Review of Children’s Cases (Wales) Regulations 2007 and The Placement of Children (Wales) Regulations 2007, The Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009, The Arrangements for Placement of Children (General) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996 and The Review of Children’s Cases Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996). The overarching principles remain those of the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995: the primacy of the child’s welfare, the obligation to take account of the child’s wishes and feelings, and the importance of continuing parental responsibility.
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