The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 takes forward the Government's commitment to securing significant improvements in the contribution that IROs make to improve care planning and secure better outcomes for children in care. The Act created a new power for the Secretary of State to issue statutory guidance to Independent Reviewing Officers and their managers.
Amendments to existing legislation extended the responsibilities of the IRO from monitoring the performance by the local authority of their functions in relation to a child's review to monitoring the performance by the local authority of their functions in relation to a child's case. The intention is that the changes to the statutory framework will enable the IRO to have an effective independent oversight of the child's case and ensure that the child's interests are protected throughout the care planning process.
A named IRO now has a statutory duty in relation to each looked after child, those under a care order (section 31 of the Children Act 1989) and those looked after under a voluntary agreement (section 20 of the Children Act 1989), from shortly after the child first becomes looked after for the duration of the child's stay within the care system. The new role includes consulting with the child in relation to the current care plan at each review and at any time that there is a significant change that could have implications for the child's care plan. Care plans should usually only be changed at reviews and the IRO has the authority to determine when a review should be convened in the light of any significant change of circumstances.
In order to place the function of the IRO in context it will be helpful to look first at the duties of the Local Authority (LA) in relation to care planning as set out in the Care Planning Regulations. These place a duty on the LA to prepare a plan for each child they look after, setting out the arrangements they have made for the current and future care of the child. The care plan must be prepared before the child is first placed by the authority, or if this is not practicable, within 10 working days of the start of the first placement. The LA must maintain the care plan and keep it under review and if it is of the opinion that some change is required, must revise it or make a new plan. The care plan must set out the long term plan for the child's upbringing and the arrangements made to meet the child's needs in relation to health, education, emotional and behavioural development, identity, family and social relationships, social presentation and self-care skills.
The care plan and the assessment of the child's needs upon which the plan rests should determine the decision as to which placement will be most suited to meeting the child's needs.
The review of the care plan is one of the key components within the core processes of working with children and families of: assessment, planning, intervention and reviewing. It is the responsibility of the IRO to chair this review at regular intervals.
The purpose of the review is to consider the quality of the child's care plan, based on the local authority's assessment of the child's needs. The care plan for each individual child must specify how the authority proposes to respond to the full range of the child's needs, taking into account their individual views, wishes and concerns. The review will need to monitor the progress of the plan and to make decisions to amend the plan as necessary in light of changed knowledge and circumstances. The review must set clear timescales and allocate responsibilities for achieving the plan's objectives.
IROs then are well placed to assess the quality and effectiveness of local authority planning and support for children. The IRO has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the LA fulfils its responsibilities as a "corporate parent" for all the children that it looks after. The IRO must ensure that the child is offered stable care that is sensitive and appropriate to each individual's personal needs so that the child is able to flourish and achieve. The plan for each child must demonstrate how the services provided have fully taken account of the child's wishes and feelings.
The responsibilities of IROs include:
- Ensuring that plans for looked after children are based on a detailed and informed assessment, are up to date, effective and provide a real and genuine response to each child's needs;
- Identifying any gaps in the assessment process or provision of service;
- Offering a safeguard to prevent any 'drift' in care planning for looked after children and the delivery of services to them;
- Monitoring the activity of the local authority as a corporate parent in ensuring that care plans have given proper consideration and weight to children's current wishes and feelings and that (where appropriate) the child fully understands the implications of any changes made to their care plan.
The amended CA 1989 and Regulations expand on the role of the IRO. The independent reviewing officer must:
a) monitor the performance by the LA of their functions in relation to the child's case
b) participate in any review of the child's case
c) ensure that any ascertained wishes and feelings of child concerning the case are given due consideration by the appropriate authority
d) perform any other function which is prescribed in Regulations.
The primary task of the IRO is to ensure that the care plan for the child fully reflects the child's need and that the actions set out in the plan are consistent with the LA's legal responsibilities towards the child. As corporate parents each LA must act for the children they look after as a responsible and conscientious parent would act.