The National Children's Bureau is carrying out research funded by the Nuffield Foundation into the role of Independent Reviewing Officers in care cases in England. The study aims to provide the first comprehensive research into the functioning and effectiveness of IRO services in England. It is a large research programme and the first stage of the investigation is now complete. The report setting out the findings from this first stage, The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England: Findings from a national survey, sets out the responses of 295 IROs, 65 IRO managers and 60 Directors of Children's Services to a national survey and analyses administrative data on IROs' access to independent sources of advice.
Noel Arasakumar Arnold, who is Director of Legal Practice at Coram Children's Legal Centre, states in the Foreword to the report:
"The role of the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) and its functions are likely to gain further significance and weight in the coming years as family justice undergoes change and reform. The provisions of the Children and Families Bill (when in force) are likely to see the court giving less time to scrutiny of a child's care plan when the court makes a public law care order. In addition, the court will have to manage cases to a conclusion within a time-limited statutory framework (the 26 weeks provision). Children who do not return to the care of their parents, are not placed within a friends and family setting and who are not adopted require and deserve the best social care assistance. They must have someone to care, plan, monitor and review their time growing up in the public care system. In steps the IRO; who should be a prominent figure for all these children.
[The report] findings clearly underscore the need for systemic strengthening and improvement of the IRO role. A majority of IROs surveyed had to carry out non-IRO duties and were spending much time on those, which could be seen to undermine the independence of IROs. The findings show that many IROs reported difficulties in being able to complete all tasks associated with the vital case review process. The barrier preventing most IROs completing reviews within recommended timescales is over-heavy caseloads. It is also clear from the research that changes in social work practice management are required as (certainly between reviews) IROs' ability to monitor children's cases is directly affected by whether they are informed of significant changes by the responsible social care team. Liaison between the IRO and the children's guardian where care proceedings are continuing was found to be lacking as was access to independent legal advice.
Many IROs reported difficulties in challenging poor practice which impacted on their perception of how well they can improve outcomes for children. This is significant area which must be improved for (as stated in the Executive Summary) "if IROs are to be effective in improving outcomes for children, they first need to be empowered themselves.""
The survey findings provide the first statistical evidence on key features of the IRO service and are compared with the requirements of the IRO national guidance introduced in 2011.
The final report will be completed in January 2014.