Following the case of Re S in 2002 the House of Lords raised concerns that children were ‘getting lost’ in the care system after the court had made final orders and that this could be a breach of the children’s and parents’ Article 8 rights. For further discussion of this case see our post about Article 8 rights and proportionality.
The Government responded with Section 118 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which amended the Children Act 1989 and established the role of Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO).
The IRO Handbook from March 2010 sets out statutory guidance regarding care planning and reviewing arrangements for looked after children.
The key role for the IRO is to improve outcomes for looked after children by reviewing each child’s care plan, making sure it is effective and to ensure that the child’s wishes and feelings are taken into account.
Section 25B of the Children Act 1989 defines the IRO’s role in this way. They must:
- monitor the performance by the local authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case;
- participate, in accordance with regulations made by the appropriate national authority, in any review of the child’s case;
- ensure that any ascertained wishes and feelings of the child concerning the case are given due consideration by the local authority;
- perform any other function which is prescribed in regulations made by the appropriate national authority.
Under section 25B(3), the IRO can refer the child’s case to Cafcass.
The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010/959 give further details of the IRO’s responsibilities, including making sure that the child knows about his/her rights under the Children Act 1989 to apply for section 8 orders or make a complaint about the LA>
The Good Practice Protocol for Public Law Work sets out guidance for a clear understanding of the statutory roles of Cafcass and the IRO and how they work together.
Research about the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer.
2014 Research from the National Children’s Bureau
See this report from March 2014 on the role of IROs in England for the National Children’s Bureau, carried out by the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.[Edit 17th July 2018 – this link no longer works} The research concluded that more could be done to make sure the IRO was fulfilling his or her crucial role of ensuring good planning for the child.
As Mr Justice Peter Jackson commented in the foreword:
It is 10 years since IROs were created in response to widespread concern about children in care being lost to sight. Yet the key conclusion of this study is that the IRO role in ensuring high-quality care planning is still to be fully realised. The report is full of examples of what can be achieved by a well-organised service, but it also uncovers the widespread problems that still exist. Here is how one child describes a review meeting:
“It’s like you’re sitting there like a ghost and there was like normal people in the room just speaking about you and you can’t say anything because you’re just like this ghost person.”
Identification of Important elements to the role of the IRO
- Professional status and respect, demonstrated both by resourcing the service properly and by openly giving IROs ‘permission’ to challenge.
- IROs with the right skills, particularly the ability to communicate with children and young people, and to know how and when to challenge.
- Access to expert advice, including independent legal advice and opportunities for reflective practice.
- Dispute resolution protocols that work, from informal conversations to the escalation of cases to senior management.
- Child-centred IROs, who demonstrate their commitment to each child and work out the best way to seek their views.
- Having a focus on outcomes, and holding agencies to account for their contribution towards these, rather than ‘box-ticking’.
Making sure that a child’s care plan is reviewed in a timely fashion was perhaps seen as the area where IROs had the greatest impact. 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 this happens should not be underestimated.
IROs were also seen as having had an influence on cases on an ongoing basis, particularly on ensuring that the care planning process focused on permanency, was child-centred and evidence based. However, respondents’ accounts reflected the variations in practice and performance reported in previous chapters, and the barriers IROs were facing in operating as intended by the national guidance.
IROs were seen as contributing to improved support and services for looked after children mainly through their involvement in individual cases. And again 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. We found examples of IROs having an influence at the more strategic level to improve a local authority’s functioning as a corporate parent. However, this is an area of IROs’ work that seems rather under-developed, and where greater clarity is required about expectations, as well as the creation of structures and processes to enable them to have an input at the strategic level.
Finally, when looking at the difference IROs made to children’s lives, respondents had some understandable difficulties attributing any improvements in child outcomes specifically to IROs, given the range of services involved in supporting children. A difficulty that was compounded by the fact that the IRO service has only recently been subject to strengthened guidance and therefore it is probably too soon to establish if they have made a difference to children’s outcomes. Assessing their contribution is important and some thought should be given, both nationally and locally, to how one can assess if and how IROs do make a difference to children’s lives, using the theory of change model outlined at the start of this chapter.
2015 Research from the University of East Anglia
This report, Care Planning and the Role of the IRO looked at how 122 children’s cases had been managed. They concluded that for the most part care planning had gone well but that there was no room for complacency as problems and challenges continued to arise. The repot noted that it was very important to understand the surrounding circumstances which influenced the way the IRO was able to work as opposed to how the IRO ideally should work according to guidance.
The report noted that it would be unfair to blame the IRO or the LA for some of the persistent difficulties and identified a number of factors that were detracting from good care planning for children:
- delays in court decision making
- slow or negative responses from other agencies
- placement shortages
- staff turnover
- high workloads
- the unpredictability of young people and their families.
It is worrying to note that discussions with the audience at CPConf2016 in Birmingham showed those present had very similar and negative views about the efficacy of the IRO system, many saying that it was simply impossible to get hold of the IRO to talk to them. I will raise similar questions at #CPConf18 to see if this is a persistent criticism.
For a case where an IRO was criticised for failing to intervene when a LA was not acting properly, see X (Discharge of care order (1)) .
National IRO Manager Partnership – the national leadership body in England for statutory Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) and IRO Managers. The partnership works with stakeholders, and crucially with IROs and the Local Authorities they are engaged with, to champion the issues that are affecting children in care and care leavers.