Date: 17 June 2022
The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has made a host of recommendations to improve children's social care. One of the more controversial proposals is to remove Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), replacing it with a right to an independent advocate. Some welcome this proposal, others are alarmed by it.
We all know that some children in care don’t receive the support and care they should. We need to improve, strengthen and enhance the functions of the team around the child as opposed to taking key functions away. We think that removing IROs is unlikely to make things better for children in care. Children in care need both IROs and Advocates.
What are Independent Reviewing Officers
The IRO role was established in 2004 and is incorporated in to the Children Act 1989. If a local authority is looking after a child, they must appoint an individual as the independent reviewing officer for that child's case. They are there to monitor the performance of the local authority in relation to the child, participate in reviews of the child's case and make sure the wishes and feelings of a child are given due consideration. Guidance for IROs says that “The primary task of the IRO is to ensure that the care plan for the child fully reflects the child’s needs and that the actions and outcomes set out in the plan are consistent with the local authority’s legal responsibilities towards the child”.
In practice, IROs convene meetings when children enter care, a further meeting within three months of that initial meeting and then further meetings no later than every six months whilst the child remains ‘looked after’. Reviews also take place if a child’s care plan changes, the placement changes or a significant factor impacts the child. These meetings - often referred to as ‘LAC reviews’ - discuss a child’s care plan. Birth parents, carers, social workers and other professionals should be invited and their views sought. Children should ideally be involved and have a role in their own care planning too.
The role of the IRO was created to address concerns that care plans for looked after children did not always meet their needs nor were they implemented properly. Once the court process had finished, there were no independent checks in place to make sure that care plans were actually put into practice. IROs have played an important role in children who enter care’s lives ever since.
The recommendation in the care review
The review recommends that “Independent, opt-out, high quality advocacy for children in care and in proceedings should replace the existing Independent Reviewing Officer and Regulation 44 Visitor roles. The Children’s Commissioner for England should oversee these advocacy services, with the powers to refer children’s complaints and concerns to the court.”
This proposal represents the total removal of IROs and replacement of them with advocates despite these being very different roles. CoramVoice highlight this in their response to the review. Children in care should receive high quality advocacy but that does not mean they should lose professional oversight and scrutiny of their care plans.
In writing this blog I spoke with my colleague, Emma Fincham (CoramBAAF’s Fostering consultant). She said to me:
“IROs see the bigger picture. They understand the subtleties of a child and their journey. They will have met with the birth parents, the siblings, foster carers and the child. If you think about an ecomap for a child – in their role, the IRO’s almost embody this. They ensure birth parents have a voice, they know why some things have happened for a child and others haven’t. They hold this and often operate in an extremely skilled way for children.”
The review of Fostering highlighted how “high staff turnover” of social workers impacted support for children. In practice, we know that IROs are often the only significant professional who follows a child’s journey. In scrapping this role, children will lose a highly experienced social worker who follows and supports their journey into and out of care, resulting in poorer decisions being made about them.
Over the years, there have been criticisms of the IRO role – around their effectiveness, not spending enough time with children and concerns about a perceived lack of independence as they are employed by the local authority - and it is likely these concerns which have led the review to make this recommendation.
The review argues that an advocate will be better placed than an IRO to build a relationship with a child and capture a child’s voice. However, the review does not set out at what the appropriate age would be for a child to have an advocate nor does it say how it would be established that a child would “opt out” of this service. Once opted out it is also not clear whether or how they opt back in. How does an advocacy service work with children who are pre-verbal? How can a baby in care “opt-out” of an advocate’s service? Would an advocate be expected to represent a baby’s views?
IROs are usually highly experienced social workers who have worked with children with a range of different needs. They have skills and knowledge in child observation and development and will be able to closely consider a child’s specific needs as well as their wishes. Replacing IROs with an advocate is not a straight swap and appears to misunderstand the vital scrutiny role that IROs have.
The advocate role is less powerful than an IRO. Advocates will not be chairing meetings where important decisions are made about children. They will be in a weaker position from which to challenge drift, delay and a lack of consideration of a child’s wishes. It is proposed by the review that advocates can refer concerns to court, but it does not set out how this process will operate, the likely impact on courts or the expectation on a court to act on a referral. Advocates are unlikely to have the experience to know in what situations they should refer matters to court and the court may not immediately know what to do with the information they receive from an advocate. Before any substantial changes are made to IROs, this must be clarified.
A challenge to IROs has always been their independence from the local authority they are employed by, and where they have often practiced as social workers. The proposal on the table is to totally remove the scrutiny of care plans from IROs and leave it in the hands of social workers and their managers. Social workers want to do what is best for children but operate under resource constraints. The risk in removing IROs is that social workers will focus on what they feel able to achieve, rather than what the child needs. This will inevitably lead us back to the scenario and environment from which IROs came - care plans for children drifted, were not implemented properly and did not meet the needs of children.
Research from University of East Anglia in 2016 found that the “IRO is part of an interactive system of checks and balances which, together, may increase the likelihood that professional judgement will be exercised effectively on the child’s behalf.” This gets to the heart of the IRO role. On their own IROs are not going to change the system but they still play a vital role for some of our most vulnerable children. Getting rid of IROs will not make children’s care plans better or better managed. Advocates may amplify children’s voices. Giving a child more involvement and support in their care planning is a good thing. None of this needs to be at the expense of a child in care not having their own IRO.
As the care review implementation progresses, we urge the implementation board and those involved to be careful with IROs. If the proposal to remove them is taken forward they will inevitably be reintroduced in another form in years to come as care plans drift and there is a lack of independent scrutiny. IROs are there for a reason. They are not perfect but play a key role. We should take this as an opportunity to enhance the role of the IRO, consider ways to support their independence and enable them to be better able to ensure children in care have their needs met. That would be a good recommendation.
James Bury, Head of Policy, Research & Development, CoramBAAF