Jerry Lonsdale is a lay adviser to parents whose children are in the care system. When no legal aid is available, he represents them in court as a McKenzie Friend. Experienced and respected in this field – he’s been doing it for over a decade now – Lonsdale is dismayed at the lack of independence he’s observed in some independent reviewing officers (IROs): a role created to provide scrutiny and oversight of the planning for children in care, and challenge local authorities when they feel a child’s best interests are not being served.
In a case Lonsdale is currently working on, he was staggered to discover that the IRO was deeply embedded in the children’s services department, having been for the past 18 months line managing the social workers involved in the case. “How is she supposed to hold to account the local authority – which hasn’t been following the care plan – if she’s part of the work?” asks Lonsdale. “It’s beyond wrong.”
In a 2014 judgment offering a provisional view on an IRO for failing to monitor care planning for a number of children, Mr Justice Holman said: “The whole point and purpose of the system and machinery of independent reviewing officers is precisely to keep the local authority (who are no doubt extraordinarily busy and overworked) on their toes and to be asking awkward questions.” But despite the significant powers IROs have to hold local authorities to account in a child’s best interests, it turns out that raising those awkward questions may lose you your job.
Jon Fayle, vice-chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO), had his contract terminated by Sutton council after he challenged the care plans for several children. Sutton subsequently apologised, compensated and reinstated him, but Fayle now believes that there is a structural problem in the way that IROs are employed.
“We hear stories of IROs feeling intimidated and being highly discouraged from making effective challenges,” he says. He gives one example of an IRO being told not to refer serious concerns about a child’s care planning to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) – as is their statutory responsibility and right – without permission from the council.
“This completely undermines their independence,” says Fayle. In another local authority, the children’s services department set up a parallel care planning panel “that called all the shots and the IRO service was marginalised”, he explains.
A report by the National Association of Fostering Providers (pdf) highlighted a number of failures by IROs to robustly challenge councils that decided to move children from a stable foster home where they’re happy to a different, cheaper foster placement. However, the issue that comes up most in Fayle’s experience as an IRO is the misuse of section 20 of the Children Act 1989, where children are accommodated with parental consent.
Now subject to considerable judicial criticism – section 20 accommodation does not require any oversight by the courts, neither children or parents are entitled to free legal advice or representation, and as a result, children have languished in care for years – Fayle says “the point is, if IROs were doing their job properly, this [misuse] would be, if not eliminated, then radically reduced”.
If an IRO doesn’t make use of their powers to hold councils to account, what’s the result?
“It leaves children without an essential protection intended by parliament,” says Fayle – a problem also noted by judges in cases including this one, which deplores the detriment to an already vulnerable child of an IRO failing to bring sufficiently rigorous or independent scrutiny to a local authority care plan that was severely lacking.
There is another problem caused by the “in-house” employment of IROs: confidence in the system is eroded. When IROs are dependent for their paycheck on the very local authority they are meant to be holding to account, it’s hardly surprising that, whether they do this well or not, there is in-built scepticism and mistrust from families with children in care.
“I didn’t initially know what an IRO did and believed them to be entirely independent and separate,” says one mother with experience of the care system. “I got a shock when I overheard her chatting to my child’s social worker about stuff going on in ‘the office’ and later found out they sat behind each other at work. I’ve left meetings hearing them talk about nights out together; it was all just a bit too matey and didn’t feel right, or respectful. How can you properly challenge a friend you’ll be out with later? I found this IRO to be heavily on the side of the local authority. When she asked questions at all she was quite apologetic about it. If I challenged her in a meeting she would get aggressive and threaten to ask me to leave.”
A NAIRO survey of IROs asked whether they felt they would be able carry out their role better if employed by a separate organisation. The majority – nearly 80% – said that on balance, remaining in-house with the resulting familiarity with that council’s personnel and processes outweighed the psychological and economic independence of being employed by an outside organisation.
That view is backed up in research by Prof Jonathan Dickens at the University of East Anglia, which found just a quarter of employed, and 30% of self-employed, IROs believed their service should be separated from the local authority (pdf). Even fewer – 18% – of social work team managers, whom IROs are required to hold to account, wanted the service to have institutional independence.
But doubts remain from IROs who have experienced pushback when they have sought to challenge on behalf of a child.
“It’s a very difficult balance to strike between working cooperatively with the local authority and colluding with them,” says independent social worker Maggie Siviter, who has worked as an IRO. “It’s often a fraught process. IROs are outnumbered within the larger children’s services, whose managers don’t want to be challenged when they are making decisions based on resources and fieldwork priorities. I have been bullied as an IRO to withdraw my challenge, I’ve seen other IROs named and shamed in senior management team meetings, and as an IRO manager I’ve been told to ‘remind your IROs whose logo is at the top of their payslips’.”
For the particular children these IROs were responsible for, the independent oversight they were entitled to failed to happen in the way it should have. But in principle, is independence possible for IROs who are employed in-house, at a time when care applications are going through the roof and ever more vulnerable children must therefore rely on them?
“I think some local authorities try very hard to give IROs independence but it’s still very difficult,” says Fayle at NAIRO, which has just developed a toolkit to support good practice including a “health check” to assess quality of service. “IROs know only too well how terribly stretched and overworked their children’s social work colleagues are and it’s hard not to be sympathetic to their position, so it makes it harder to challenge and criticise in the way a Cafcass officer from outside the local authority might.
“But the more important thing is the culture. Is this an organisation that really wants to hear the views of IROs and take them seriously, or are they seen as a bit of a nuisance?”
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