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Josh MacAlister defends recommendation to scrap IROs and ‘reset’ advocacy

The chair of the independent care review has defended his plans to ‘reset’ children’s advocacy following the publication of the review.

The independent review published last week recommends removing the requirement to appoint an Independent Reviewing Officer alongside the introduction of Independent Advocacy on an opt-out basis, something Josh MacAlister recognises has been “a topic of real debate”.

Mr MacAlister said the starting point for him was listening to children and young people who frequently started that they aren’t heard when professionals make decisions about their lives.

“For example, a child who has just been through a family court process and who now lives in a children’s home can have a social worker (who might change often), an advocate, an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), a Regulation 44 visitor (someone who inspects the home) and have recently had a Cafcass Guardian,” said Mr MacAlister.

“Despite – or in fact because of – so many overlapping roles, children are often left confused and reliant on professionals they don’t have a meaningful relationship with to advocate for them or assess their best interests. Rather than lots of roles making the system ‘safe’ or better at protecting children’s rights, having overlapping professionals around a child in care can in fact dilute professional accountability for decision-making and solving issues,” he added.

A further challenge is that advocacy is provided on an opt in bases, yet many children are not aware they have the right to ask for an advocate.

Furthermore, a recent study of 129 local authorities found that 70 percent of advocacy services fail to meet national standards. They are also commissioned by local authorities and therefore lack independence, Mr MacAlister added.

He outlined how many Independent Reviewing Officers have more than the recommended upper limit of 70 children to work with and, as a result, usually only see children once every six months. As they are council employed staff, they also lack independence.

IRO services have been criticised in previous reviews  - such as Martin Narey and Mark Owers fostering review - and are often singled out by judges in court hearings.

“I’ve met excellent IROs during this review and they are some of the most experienced and skilled social workers in children’s social care. But they do not have the capacity, remit or independence to ensure children’s voices are heard or that their best interests are met,” said Josh MacAlister.

“The review has set out recommendations for England to build a leading advocacy service for children in care. While job titles would need to change, this future system would be designed to give children genuinely independent professionals with clearer roles and the opportunity to establish relationships so that their views really can be heard and so that their interests are given paramountcy,” he added.

The review has set out some simple principles that we think should guide a reset of how children’s voices and best interests are understood:

  • Social workers should be trusted to act in the best interests of children. When it comes to reviewing the care for a child, social workers have the relationship with a child and alongside their manager they should be supported and be responsible for making a best interest assessment.

  • Genuinely independent advocacy for children in care should be opt-out, not opt-in. Children in care should have access to an adult that is unequivocally on their side and solely focused on making sure they are heard, which is particularly important when things go wrong with the care they receive.

  • The gravity of the decision to remove children from their parents needs an independent second opinion. Therefore the role of an independent Cafcass guardian is needed.

“The system for ensuring children’s voices are heard and that their best interests are met is not working. I’ve made my recommendation, based on the evidence we have collected and heard. It’s right that these ideas are debated and discussed ahead of the government making their decision. Is there a better way to achieve the same principles set out above? Is there a completely different way to think about this? The answers might be ‘yes’, but if we agree that the current system isn’t working then that means things do need to change,” concluded Mr MacAlister.

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