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BLOG: IROs must remain central to the care process

Sue Kent, BASW Professional Officer, looks at research findings from the National Children's Bureau (NCB) and The Nuffield Foundation suggesting that Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) are struggling to do their jobs.

Concern about capacity to deliver an expanded role of the Independent Reviewing Officer has been expressed in BASW consultation responses, both to the Family Justice Review and the Children and Families Bill.

The Bill suggested that IROs should take a bigger part in scrutinising children’s care plans, freeing the court from this duty.

This additional demand, on top of plans to process care applications within 26 weeks, is heaping pressure onto IROs.

Research findings from this latest study by the National Children's Bureau (NCB) and the Nuffield Foundation mirror results from a BASW survey taken in 2012.

BASW’s survey suggested that 87% of respondents held more than 60 cases (the IRO Handbook (2010) recommendation is 50 – 70 cases), 73% said they have responsibility for tasks other than reviewing children's care plans.

Over 50% reported spending more than half their contracted time recording information, despite the fact some respondents did not know the purpose of this. One told BASW, "we duplicate several lots of data … I have asked frequently how information is collated and used”.

BASW’s survey also mirrored the NCB/ Nuffield Foundation statistic that almost half (49%) of respondents were always or often able to monitor the cases more generally.

87% of IROs responding to BASW’s survey had no direct involvement with court, in comparison with 58% surveyed by NCB/ Nuffield Foundation.

The NCB survey suggests heavy caseloads and unsupportive higher management are affecting the quality of the IRO service, issues common to most social workers.

Over the last year members have been reporting that IRO caseloads have increased way above the recommended guidance, prompting discussion about possible enforcement through legislation.

32% of BASW respondents said that having IRO vacancies in their localities were putting added stress on their workloads.

BASW members are affected by recent moves to re-evaluate the IRO role and many are now reporting a cut in pay and conditions, seemingly due to a perception that because they do not manage people their job is less valuable.

The IRO role itself is not always valued and is managed in many different ways across the country.

Most IROs responding to the BASW survey were managed by a quality assurance lead, but just under half were managed by a child protection manager.

This surely affects the ability of individual IROs to remain independent and challenge decisions made on a care plan or challenge those actions which have not taken place between reviews.

In 2012, a landmark judgement (A and S v Lancs CC [2012] EWHC 1689 (Fam)) involving two brothers who had their human rights infringed by Lancaster County Council during a 12 year stint in care that involved abuse and multiple placements, raised an interesting discussion on both the role of the IRO and the pressures of the job.

In the 12 years from 1999 – 2011 each of the boys was subject to 35 Looked After Children (LAC) Reviews. The IRO named in the action chaired 16 of those reviews. 

Family Law Week reported “The IRO accepted that he had failed adequately to carry out his role in respect of the boys and accepted a number of specific shortcomings including that he had not addressed or monitored the repeated failures of social workers or promoted the boys’ rights”.

The IRO highlighted the pressure he faced, including a caseload of three times the good practice guidance at times, lack of training and absence of access to legal advice.

Has the profession really learnt from this case, or is such practice accepted as the lot of the IRO?

As care referrals and care planning scrutiny increases, the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer is and will be an ever-growing one.

To end on a more optimistic note, BASW found that 96% of IRO respondents believed that they had positively influenced individual care plans.

The care system must harness this positivity and not grind IROs down.

Just as Looked After Children must be at the heart of decisions made about their care, so too must IROs remain central to the process.