Kinship Assessment Guide – Section 2 – Principles and best practice
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Section 2. Principles and best practice
This section considers the principles that underpin a viability assessment. It also discusses best practice in processes and procedures, including identifying who to assess, when and how, and how to present a viability assessment report.
2.1 The principles underpinning a viability assessment
Simmonds6 suggests that all assessments need to be:
It is important that social workers approach the viability assessment in a spirit of openness rather than from a position of preconceived value judgements about the family network. When undertaking a viability assessment, it is recommended that the child’s social worker should work alongside a social worker from the fostering or kinship service. This allows for a combination of the knowledge and understanding of the child (including their needs, wishes and feelings) that the child’s social worker will bring, and the expertise and specialist practice of the fostering or kinship social worker (see also Section 3k). This model can provide better information to carers and a more rounded assessment of the ability of carers to meet the child’s needs in both the short and long term.
Viability assessments to inform family court decision-making are initiated because a child’s parents may be unable to meet their child’s needs safely and adequately. The decision to seek alternative carers for a child will be informed by assessments of parenting capacity and issues that impact on the child’s safety, wellbeing, and development. In many cases parents will be challenged by complex problems of substance misuse, domestic violence, and mental ill health. Social workers conducting viability assessments must consider any current or historical concerns about extended family members in relation to these or other issues that impact on parenting capacity.
Viability assessments have to be completed in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that they often take place at a time of emotional turmoil for members of the child’s family and friends network, who may only recently have become aware of the issues the child faces and/or be struggling to come to terms with what has happened. The nature of the decision involved – i.e., whether a child can remain within their family and friends network – places social workers in a position of power in relation to those being assessed, and social workers should be sensitive to this.
In order to ensure that viability assessments are conducted in a spirit of partnership, social workers will need to:
- Demonstrate to the family (in their approach to the assessment) that they view placement within the wider family or kinship network as a potential positive outcome for the child;
- Be sensitive to the feelings of family members;
- Be aware that the issues for wider family or kinship network carers are not the same as those for strangers being assessed to foster or adopt;
- Carefully explain the assessment and any court process to family members. This should include easy-to-di- gest information about the options before the court for the child’s future.
In particular, practitioners should explain:
- the differences between fostering, special guardianship and child arrangements orders
- the implications in respect of any further assessments and support required, thereby enabling the family to make a more informed decision about the options
- that the process is a complex one and social workers may well have to go over information more than once.
- Support this explanation with the provision of written information about assessment and court processes (such as the leaflet at Appendix D) and inform families about sources of independent legal advice, including Family Rights Group’s free advice line and website and other sources of independent support (see Appendix E);
- Whilst respecting confidentiality, inform family members about why a viability assessment is being conducted and give them the information that will help them understand the child’s needs; just because someone is part of the family network, it should not be assumed they have all the relevant information;
- Consider and inform family members of the support that the local authority could provide to enable them to care for the child.
The purpose of a viability assessment is to determine whether or not a family and friends network member may, subject to further assessment, be able to meet the needs of a child, potentially for the duration of their childhood. Many children will have quite specific developmental needs and these should be carefully explained to a potential carer at the beginning of the viability assessment. Whether the potential carer can meet the day-to-day basic care needs of any child should be explored, as well as their ability to meet the particular child’s specific needs and their wishes and feelings.
The following headings offer a useful way of summarising the needs that the social worker should explore:
including any medical or health needs the child has, how these are managed and what level of input it is anticipated will be needed from the The potential carer should be able to meet all day-to-day health and medical needs, including dentist, opticians, and health check-ups, and be able to provide routine, a healthy diet and age-appropriate care. Consideration should be given to the lifestyle and activities of the child and how the carer can meet these needs, including what clubs and activities the child undertakes and how the carer will encourage gifts and talents.
including whether the child has any specific schooling needs and whether they would need to change schools and how this would be managed, as well as whether the child has any learning or behavioural needs and is subject to an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
Emotional and behavioural needs
including any behaviour that may cause disruption and destabilise the household, any therapeutic needs and how they should be met. It will also be important to explore the carer’s understanding of managing transition and difficulties in attachment.
including how the child will understand their journey and story, their cultural, religious and linguistic needs, their gender identity and sexuality, and how the child will be understood in the family system.
A viability assessment should consider both the current and the anticipated future needs of the child. The key question is: ‘Could the family member being assessed, with the provision of appropriate support, be able to provide for this child’s needs?’
A viability assessment should contain enough detail to evidence that there is a need for a full assessment, or that this person is not a realistic option for the child. Each issue should be considered in relation to the current and likely future needs of the specific child. Where there is evidence that a child’s needs would not be met or they may suffer further harm if placed, a viability assessment can conclude without exploring all other areas. Where information raises concerns but is insufficient to rule someone out, the assessor may return to discuss further as part of the viability, or alternatively flag this as a line of enquiry during any further assessment. Further assessment is always required before a decision to make a placement is made.
The viability assessment should set out clearly:
- the information gathered by the social worker in relation to the child’s current and anticipated future needs
- the ability of the family member or friend being assessed to meet these needs (with appropriate support)
- the social worker’s analysis of this evidence, which underpins the recommendation they have reached.
(See also: 2:2d below on how to present a viability assessment).
Not all local authorities have a viability assessment process in place and there is no law that requires a local authority to adopt such a process, but it is common practice for local authorities to rule out non-viable placements at an early stage following a preliminary assessment.
However, viability assessments can be challenged in court if they are not properly conducted, so a fifth underlying principle is that viability assessments must be conducted in such a way that they can be legally upheld. If the legality of a negative assessment is successfully challenged in court, the assessment will need to be redone either by the local authority or an Independent Social Worker. This costs time and money and, ultimately, can cause significant delay to the proceedings and affect the outcome for the child.
The Supreme Court and Court of Appeal have commented on the proper consideration of different possible placements for children in recent years. At the time of writing, the key cases to know and understand are:
Re H (Care and adoption: assessment of wider family)  EWFC 10 also confirms the legal position, as outlined above, in respect of assessments of family members. When summarising the law in his judgment, Mr Justice Cobb quotes this Initial Family & Friends Care Assessment: A Good Practice Guide.
On occasions where there are a number of potential carers who may be able to care for the child, it may be necessary to use viability assessments to help decide which is the most suitable option or options to pursue to full assessment.
In summary, not all options need to be fully assessed, but all realistic options for the care of the child must be and viability assessments serve to identify which are the realistic options. Viability assessments that rule out a potential carer must evidence that this option is clearly and plainly unrealistic, and one that the court can and should confidently dismiss.
2.2 Best practice in process and procedures
Identifying who to assess, when and how, and presenting the information: Best practice in process and procedures
Statutory guidance7 sets out helpful directions as a starting point for undertaking the best possible procedures to ensure realistic potential placements are considered properly.
Where there are child protection concerns it is important to:
- Identify and involve the wider family as early as possible: family members can play a key role in supporting the child and helping parents address identified problems. If these problems escalate, local authorities should then seek to place children with suitable wider family members where it is safe to do so.
- Enable wider family members to contribute to decision-making, including deciding when the child cannot remain safely with their parents.
Where a child cannot live with their parents, it is the duty of local authorities to work in partnership with parents and relatives to identify whether there is anyone within the child’s network of family and friends who can provide the child with safe and appropriate care.
Parents may suggest potential alternative carers and some family members may come forward themselves once they become aware there is a possibility that the child may not be able to remain in the parents’ care. In some cases local authorities may be faced with a large number of potential carers. In these situations, it is helpful to ask the parents and family and kinship network to identify a smaller number of carers who they feel would be most appropriate to be assessed to care for the child.
Family group conferences are not a legal requirement; however, they are recognised as a valuable process for involving the family early so that the family can provide support to enable the child to remain at home or begin the process of identifying alternative permanence options. This also allows the family to contingency plan without feeling that they are undermining the parents and to prioritise who should be assessed as an alternative carer. The use of family group conferences is promoted in the Court Orders and Pre-proceedings statutory guidance (2014).8
The importance of early identification of carers and the use of FGCs are also foregrounded in the Public Law Working Group Guidance ‘Recommendations to achieve best practice in child protection and family justice systems’ March 2021 where it says the following:
‘In coming to a decision, all members of the LGM (Legal Gateway Meeting)/LPM (Legal planning meeting) will identify…Family members who are to be consulted to offer either support or be assessed as alternative carers. The early sharing of necessary information with extended family and the use of an FGC (or similar model developed and used locally) is essential, unless there is good reason why this is impracticable.’ (para 19, pg. 112)
Further information on family group conferences can be found at Appendix B.
Engaging wider family as early as possible opens the possibility for a family placement if such an arrangement is required. The 26-week timescale for care proceedings9 sets out an expectation that family and friends care options will have been considered pre-proceedings (Court and Pre-proceedings statutory guidance, 2014). The pressures of the 26-week timescale will be considerably reduced if potential carers have been identified at an earlier stage.
The Court and Pre-proceedings statutory guidance also highlights the importance of enabling wider family members to contribute to decision-making where there are child protection or welfare concerns, and this is an important part of pre-proceedings planning (para 2.24).
Sometimes an urgent need for protective action to safeguard the child does not allow for the involvement of the child’s wider family and friends network before proceedings; in such cases, the wider family should be involved as soon as possible. In these situations, assessments of alternative placements will need to take place within the timescales and framework of these legal proceedings. The court will need to be advised whether there is anyone within that network who should be assessed as potential carers for the child, and the court may choose to set a date by which those people should put themselves forward for preliminary assessment.
Viability assessments are usually based on at least one home visit to the potential carer with a follow-up discussion. However, there may be times when this is not sufficient and further visits are required.
For potential carers, agreeing to care for a child who is not their own is a significant and life-changing decision. Although family and friends will often take that decision without hesitation and with clear and sincere commitment and motivation, those potential carers should be encouraged (once the initial discussions and assessment are completed) to take time to consider the implications of this decision for themselves and their own family before a final decision/agreement to proceed is taken.
As discussed in 2:1(b) above, a viability assessment should be conducted in a spirit of partnership with the child’s family and it is important that anyone who puts them self forward as a potential carer is given as much information as possible about:
- the reason for children’s services involvement;
- the specific needs of the child;
- the purpose of the viability assessment and what the process entails;
- the next steps if the viability is positive or negative;
- the legal process and possible orders that the court may make;
- the support that may be available to them.
If a number of family members are identified as potential carers, either through a family group conference or other family-engagement activity, it will be helpful to ask the family to prioritise the order of who is assessed. This enables viability assessments to be undertaken in a more planned and open way.
As with all social work assessments, assessing viability should take a strengths-based, analytical, and evidence-informed approach to identifying strengths, assets and vulnerabilities. Since a viability assessment is usually completed within one or two visits and since it may identify factors which could preclude a family member from caring for the child, it is important that the person undertaking the assessment is honest and clear in explaining the purpose and process of assessment (i.e., to explore the individual’s background, relationships and current circumstances, and to discuss any factors that might preclude them from caring for the child).
Willingness on the part of the assessor to acknowledge positive areas, and to consider opportunities for change (with or without support), conveys a sense of fairness and genuine partnership.
The assessment report should set out the social worker’s analysis and the evidence that underpins their professional recommendation. A draft report should be shared with the potential carer who should be given sufficient time to review and digest the assessment and be invited to correct any factually incorrect information and add their comments.
The report may be used by the local authority to inform permanency planning for the child and may be submitted to court within care proceedings. The potential carer must be made aware that, should this happen, information within the report will be shared with all parties.
There is no statutory format for a viability report (although a suggested format is set out at Appendix C).
Whatever format is used, viability assessments should be presented in a consistent manner and should include the potential carer’s:
- Details and members of their household including:
- Relationship to the child/children
- Citizenship/immigration status
- Health (mental and physical)
- Criminal warnings, cautions, convictions
- Working patterns (see in particular Section 3e)
- Finances (see Sections 3f and 3e)
- Ability to provide childcare and/or what support from the local authority would be required (see Sections 3c, 3d, 3e, 3g, 3h, 3i and 3m)
- Relationship with the child’s parents (see in particular Section 3l)
- Relationship to the child or children (see in particular Section 3k)
- Knowledge of the child’s specific needs (see in particular Section 3b)
- Motivation (see Section 3a)
- Parenting/caring experience/capacity (see in particular Section 3i, and 3m)
- Knowledge of why the child is known to children’s services (see in particular Section 3b)
- Understanding of the local authority’s concerns, and insight into the impact of this on the child (see in particular Sections 3b, and 3n)
- Understanding of and ability to safeguard and protect the child from harm in the future (see Sections 3b, 3i and 3j)
- Attitude to and ability to manage contact with parents, both now and in the future (see in particular Sections 3l, and 3k)
- Own previous or current involvement with children’s services and ability to manage the identified risks parent(s) pose to the child (see in particular Sections 3i and 3l).
Each of the factors listed above is discussed in Section 3 (indications of the most relevant sections are given above). Every viability assessment report should also conclude with a recommendation as to whether further assessment should take place. (See also Section 2:1e above on ensuring viability assessments are legally sound).
- Simmonds J (2011) The Role of Special Guardianship: Best practice in permanency planning for children.
London: BAAF, p29
- Court Orders and Pre-proceedings for Local Authorities (2014), Department for Education
- Court Orders and Pre-proceedings for Local Authorities (2014), Department for Education
- Section 32 Children Act 1989 (as amended)
- Simmonds J (2011) The Role of Special Guardianship: Best practice in permanency planning for children.
- Guide home page with detailed contents list
- Section 1. Introduction: Why initial family and friends care assessments (commonly known as viability assessments) matter
- Section 2. Principles and best practice
- Section 3. Factors to consider during the assessment
- Section 4. Undertaking international viability assessments
- Section 5. Forming a conclusion