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Kinship Assessment Guide – Section 3 – Factors to consider during the assessment

Section 3. Factors to consider during the assessment

This section discusses the wide range of factors that the assessing social worker should consider when undertaking a viability assessment.

Katy Halliday covers factors to consider while undertaking a viability assessment

a) Motivation

Some potential carers may come forward themselves while others may be suggested (with or without their knowledge) by a child’s mother or father in response to a request by social workers. This may be shortly after concerns have been identified by family or professionals, or later in the process when the likelihood that the child will go into foster care or be adopted has become clearer. In considering suitability for assessment, it is essential to establish the potential carer’s motivation in coming forward or their willingness to be assessed as suggested by other family members.

The potential carer may need some time to reflect on the enormity of what they are being asked to undertake. The assessor should explore whether the potential carer has a realistic understanding of the child’s needs until adulthood and to what they are committing. Motivation that results from family pressure will need exploration, whilst motivation that results from a genuine and meaningful relationship with the child will be more straightforward. It would be unusual to decide someone is unsuitable simply on the basis of their motivation, however; if a potential carer is not genuinely committed to taking on the role, the likelihood is that they will withdraw voluntarily once they appreciate the demands involved.

b) Understanding of the needs of the child and family

The success of a kinship placement depends on the carer having a good understanding of the child’s specific needs, both now and into the future, as well as the wider family dynamics. So in any viability assessment it is important to establish the potential carer’s understanding of the reasons why the child needs alternative care, the family circumstances that have led to intervention, any harm that the child may have suffered or is likely to suffer in future, and the impact of this on the child’s current and future development needs.

Even if the potential carer knows the child well, social workers should not assume that the potential carer has all the information they need. Whilst confidentiality must be respected, the potential carer should be given as much information as possible and allowed the time to absorb it. The potential carer may also have greater insight into or knowledge about the child than the social worker; this should be acknowledged and respected.

Where a potential carer has poor understanding of the child’s needs and family situation, and seems unable to develop this despite professional input, an assessor would be justified in being concerned about their suitability.

c) Age of carer

The potential carer’s age should be considered in relation to their ability to meet the needs of the child both now and in the future.

There is no minimum or maximum age for fostering, although special guardians and adopters must be over 18 years old. In general, unrelated foster carers are at least 18 and usually older, and many will start to consider ending their ‘caring career’ at the usual retirement age. In kinship care, however, a large proportion of carers are grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings to the child they are looking after and may be older or younger than most unrelated carers.

Every case needs to be considered on an individual basis and any assessment should take into account the existing relationship with the child and the child’s needs. Where the carer is older, the assessor should consider the carer’s current and likely future health, the likelihood of them caring for the child through to adulthood or independence, the support network available to the carer, and any arrangements they may be able to put in place should they become unable to continue as the main carer for the child.

If the potential carer is an older sibling, cousin, or other friend or relative, there may be issues about them being relatively young and/or close in age to the child they want to care for. The assessor should take account of the potential carer’s maturity and life experience, the age difference between them and the child, and whether the child views them as an ‘adult’ and authority figure or as a member of their own peer group. The support network available to the carer will affect the degree to which they will be able to combine pursuing their own life goals alongside taking on caring responsibilities, as will what support framework the local authority can put in place for the placement to be a success.

d) Accommodation

The carer’s home should be able to accommodate the child in a way that meets their need for warmth, health and safety, privacy, and the space to go about their daily life, including any needs arising from a disability. However, the potential carer will often have had no time to plan for what is happening and their accommodation may not be appropriate for additional children. In these circumstances, the social worker undertaking the viability assessment should explore the willingness of the family member to move to alternative accommodation to meet the needs of the child.

The social worker should inform the family member about what support may be available to help them resolve any problems with accommodation. This may include house swaps, prioritisation for alternative housing and assistance with deposits, or help with altering the current home. Some local authorities have protocols between children’s services and housing departments that recognise the needs of kinship carers.

The Department for Education’s statutory guidance on family and friends care states:

‘Housing authorities and registered social landlords should be engaged to ensure that their policies recognise the importance of the role performed by family and friends carers, and that whenever possible family and friends carers living in social housing are given appropriate priority to move to more suitable accommodation if this will prevent the need for a child to become looked after.’10

All households should be expected to be safe and functional and a viability assessment will need to consider what is required to achieve that. Children living with family and friends foster carers have the same rights to privacy and suitable sleeping accommodation as other looked after children, but these should be seen as part of the total assessment of suitability, to be balanced against other factors.

Sleeping arrangements must be adequate but may not always meet the same standards as for unrelated foster carers. For example, it may be acceptable for a child to have a sofa bed as their own bed and to sleep in a lounge area, but this will clearly need to take account of the needs and age of the child. This would also be more acceptable as a short-term arrangement and less so as a permanent one. The individual circumstances of each case should be considered.

Subject to an appropriate risk assessment, it can be acceptable for children to share bedrooms with other children and, although not ideal, for children to sleep in the same room as adult relatives, depending on factors such as the age of the child, their relationship with the carer, the wishes and feelings of all parties, and a full risk assessment.

e) Employment status of carer

During a viability assessment, any potential concerns about the availability of the carer to meet the needs of the child due to work commitments should be considered. Taking into account the age and needs of the child, it may be that any concerns can be addressed by the availability of other supportive networks or the provision of appropriate childcare/financial support.

Kinship carers should be willing to consider their current working arrangements and how these arrangements impact on any child they are caring for or hope to care for. However, assessors should not pressurise potential carers to give up jobs in order to be assessed as suitable. Children can benefit from growing up in families with good role models in relation to work and who are able to provide for them financially.

Where a child’s needs may require a carer to change their working arrangements, local authorities should consider providing support in the form of appropriate childcare if this is in the best interest of the child, or financial support to carers if the only option is to give up employment in order to care for specific children, either in the short or longer term.

f) Finances

The assessor should consider with the potential carer the financial implications of the child living with them, both in the short and longer term. While any preliminary concerns about finances, such as unmanageable debt, should be considered at the viability stage, the carer also needs to be aware that a full financial assessment will take place should the local authority progress beyond the viability assessment stage.

The assessor should provide the potential carer with information about independent sources of advice on welfare benefits and about what financial assistance, including childcare support, may be available at local and national level (depending on the child’s needs and legal order). Information should also be provided on access to potential financial assistance with legal representation.

g) Health of carer

During the viability assessment it is important to consider whether a potential carer has any health problems that might mean they would be unable to meet the child’s needs, even with appropriate support, either now or in the future.

In the first instance, the assessor should ask the potential carer to share any information about their physical and mental health, and whether they consider themselves to have a disability. Where the potential carer does have physical or mental ill health and/or a disability, this does not necessarily mean they will be unable to care for the child. However, the nature and current impact of any ill health or disability (as well as anticipated future impact) on an individual’s ability to meet the needs of the child must be explored during the viability assessment.

There will often not be enough time to obtain formal health reports (this will be a requirement if further assessment under fostering or special guardianship regulations is undertaken). However, with the potential carer’s consent, it may be possible to ask a health professional to provide information or prognosis regarding the carer’s health that will aid the viability assessment. This may include the impact or side effects of any medication that the carer is taking. The assessor should also be alert to possible misuse of medication.

Each case needs to be considered in relation to the best interest of the child. Some kinship carers suffer from ill health or a disability that may prohibit them from passing a foster care assessment for an unrelated child but may still be able to care for the particular child in question. The assessment should consider not only any concerns but also whether support from the carer and/or child’s wider network, or from the local authority, might make the placement viable given its other strengths and advantages.

h) Lifestyle of carer and household members

A detailed understanding of the carer’s lifestyle and those of other members of their household is unlikely to be obtained within the one or two visits that are normally undertaken for a viability assessment. However, it is important to consider any obvious issues that will impact directly on their suitability to care for the child.

The assessor will need to bear in mind that the carer’s current lifestyle may not immediately be well matched to caring for a child – for example, if they have not had childcare responsibilities prior to being assessed. However, a viability assessment should not make value judgements on past or current choices that are incompatible with the potential caring role; rather, it should focus on what changes the carer has made, or is willing and able to make, in order to create and sustain a suitable environment for the child moving forward.

Lifestyle in the context of kinship care may include a wide range of issues: retirement plans for older carers, study or career plans for younger carers, caring responsibilities for other children or adults in the family and wider network, leisure interests, personal relationships, and family and friendship networks.

As part of considering the potential carer’s lifestyle choices, a viability assessment should pick up on any issues in relation to the following that would impact on the care of the child:

Smoking and electronic cigarettes

Smoking tobacco is known to carry health risks not only for smokers, but also for children they care for through exposure to second-hand smoke and the impact of role modelling. However, if potential carers or others in the household are smokers, or users of e-cigarettes, this should not automatically rule them out.

Both CoramBAAF and The Fostering Network have developed practice guidance in relation to foster care and tobacco smoking and the use of electronic cigarettes. The joint briefing from The Fostering Network and ASH on tobacco smoking11 specifically addresses the importance of focusing on the individual needs of the child:

‘Local authorities must protect children from second-hand smoke and the impact of smoking on a child’s behaviour, while doing their best to ensure that no child in need goes without a home. Balancing the risk of exposure against the benefits of good and appropriate care is challenging, but by focusing on the child’s individual needs, the right decisions can be made.’

The viability assessment should briefly consider whether potential carers are willing to manage their smoking behaviour in a way that will minimise the impact on children in their care, particularly in the case of children under five years old and those who are especially vulnerable to the effects of smoking as a result of disability or a health-related condition.


Alcohol is a legal substance that is the subject of government guidelines around its impact on health. Whilst detailed advice is periodically updated, ‘moderate’ alcohol intake is widely considered acceptable in society, except in certain cultural and religious contexts.

The assessor should explore the potential carer’s alcohol consumption. This may be difficult where the social worker has concerns about the level of drinking but the carer lacks insight into the effect of alcohol on their capacity to care safely for the child. In such circumstances, the assessor may make observations during the home visit or be given information from others that will form part of their discussion with the potential carer. Concerns may need to be explored further in any follow-up assessment. There will be situations where a social worker assesses the potential carer as unsuitable because they use alcohol to a degree that will make them ineffective or unsafe carers for children. In such situations, it is necessary to evidence that the carer’s alcohol use will have a negative impact on the child’s welfare and development.

Substance misuse

Viability assessments should consider substance misuse by the carers. If potential carers have a day-to-day lifestyle that is dictated by the need to meet an addiction, this is a matter of serious concern that would need to be evidenced by the social worker. Individuals who use drugs on a recreational basis will need to consider how that affects their ability to function and their role modelling for the child, and other ways in which their drug use might impact on the child’s life. In terms of a viability assessment, it is necessary to look at how parenting capacity in the short and longer term might be affected, including the choices that the adult is willing and able to make and the impact this will have on the child.

i) Experience of parenting and significant other relationships

A viability assessment should consider the potential carer’s own experience of parenting and of being parented as this can highlight issues regarding their current and future parenting capacity.

Potential carers may have experienced difficulties in their own childhood and/or have had problems parenting their own children. Where carers are members of the child’s extended family, they may have contributed to, or been affected by, the issues that have led to the child needing alternative care. Consideration should be given to whether they may have been involved with children’s services, either as a child in care and/or had children voluntarily accommodated or removed by the courts, or experienced domestic violence or other forms of abuse.

Where there are serious concerns about the potential carer’s current parenting of their own children, the social worker will need to consider the impact of placing any additional child in that situation. Even where the child would not be considered to be directly at risk, the inevitable additional responsibilities and pressures are likely to exacerbate any existing concerns.

Significant historic concerns, such as incidents of child sexual abuse need to be taken extremely seriously by the assessing social worker. Questions in relation to this could result in distress, especially if the potential carer had themselves been a victim of child sexual abuse.

Although past parenting is important, it is equally important that excessive weight is not given to this in comparison to what may have happened since. People change, and parenting takes place in the context of many other factors. The potential carer’s views and reflections on their past experiences will help to indicate whether previous difficulties are likely to persist in the future. Factors such as poverty, domestic violence, offending and immaturity may have impacted on earlier parenting, but they may be less relevant (or irrelevant) now and in the future.

In addition to the potential carer’s relationship with their own parents and children, the assessor will need to consider the carer’s relationships with partners and members of the household in respect of any issues that might affect their capacity to provide safe and positive care to the child – for example, incidents of domestic abuse.

j) Criminal convictions

The need to safeguard children is a priority. The assessor should ask the carer to share any history of criminal offences (cautions and convictions) so that the significance of these can be assessed. It is good practice to check the information provided by seeking consent to request information held on the police national computer (a PNC check). Where the PNC check is returned with offences recorded, the assessor should discuss this with the carer. An understanding of the timing, nature and context of an offence will be crucial to assess its significance in relation to the carer’s suitability to care for a child now and in the future.

Where there are other adults living in the household, information about their criminal history should be sought along with consent to obtain confirmation from a PNC check. The social worker should explain that these are part of the checks that the agency must undertake on all adults within the household to ensure that no one poses a known risk of harm to the child. The assessor should also explain that if the viability assessment determines that the family member should go forward for further assessment, then they and all household members (possibly others who do not live at the address but play a significant role in caring for the child) aged over 18 years will need to have enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks.

There may be circumstances when an offence or history of offences that would prohibit someone from becoming a foster carer for unrelated children, may not exclude a relative from taking on a child as a kinship carer, under a different legal framework if necessary. Decisions in this regard will need to be based on a good quality risk assessment that considers all of the relevant factors and considers what is best in the individual circumstances of the child.

k) Relationship with child

Consideration of the nature and quality of relationships between the potential carer, members of their household and the child is central to any viability assessment: they may have a pre-existing and close relationship, or they may not know each other well or indeed at all.

The viability assessment should enable the potential carer to discuss the strengths of their relationship with the child and other family members, including the bonds that already exist between potential carer and child. The benefits of kinship placements are often based on continuity of care, the continuation of a close relationship, or the security that comes from growing up in a family network where relationships can be developed.

Relationships in which difficulties or tensions have arisen should be carefully explored, including consideration of the context and reasons underlying any difficulties.

A relationship based on family ties in which the carer and the child do not know one another on a personal level should be explored for the potential to provide for the child’s needs, including helping them shape their identity. The assessor will need to keep in mind the impact of any geographical move on the child’s welfare, education, leisure, and friendship networks. A viability assessment may suggest the child’s future contact plan provides the opportunity, either face-to face or indirectly, to nurture a relationship during the period of any further assessment.

In all cases, it is important for the assessor to consider the child’s perspective on the relationship and their wishes and feelings about the possible placement, taking into account their age and understanding. One of the important benefits of the kinship team undertaking a viability assessment jointly with the child’s social worker is to ensure crucial information about the child is taken into account. If the child is not spoken to directly during the assessment, their wishes and feelings should be gleaned from the child’s social worker as well as other professional sources, including the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO).

It is important to discuss with the potential carer that, no matter how positive the carer and child’s relationship, they will have to negotiate a changed relationship if the carer takes on the parenting role. This enables the carer to begin to think through the implications of this in readiness for further assessment.

l) Family dynamics and contact

It is often the case that kinship care will help a child to develop a positive sense of identity. This is likely to include contact with parents and siblings (unless contact would expose the child to on-going risk of harm). The child’s wishes and feelings should be taken in account, especially given their age, and understanding. A viability assessment should identify the carer’s attitude to other members of the child’s family and assess their ability to promote and manage contact safely (whether face to face or indirect) and what assistance they may require.

Kinship carers will need to be able to manage any personal feelings of disapproval or anger about the child’s parents, and protect the child from this. It is understandable that a potential carer may have reservations about or be upset with the child’s parents, particularly if news about the child’s situation has come as a shock. However, the potential carer will need to be able to respect the child’s relationship with their parent(s), allow them to enjoy a positive but realistic view of their parent(s) and avoid the child developing divided loyalties. At the same time, the carer will need to prioritise the safety of the child and comply with any safeguarding requirements that are formally stipulated by the local authority or the courts. This can be complex and some discussion should take place as to how the potential carer can be supported to achieve this.

m) Impact on other household members

Caring for someone else’s child, whether a member of the extended family or not, has implications not only for the carer themselves but also the other members of their household and extended family. A child moving in will change the dynamics within any household and will affect any personal relationships the carer may have.

Family and friends carers include grandparents, aunts, uncles or even siblings of the child. As carers, they are likely to need emotional and/or practical support from household or extended family members and friends in order to care for and safeguard the child. The social worker will need to consider the implications of the child coming to live with those already living in the household and other close members of the carer’s network.

Other members of the potential carer’s household are also likely to need help in thinking through the impact of the proposed placement on their own relationships and lifestyle. They may also need support to understand the child’s situation and to understand the motivation and aspirations of the potential carer in offering to care for the child.

The impact on everyone affected should be considered and their views taken into account within the viability assessment.

Although it will often not be possible to go into these issues in great depth during a viability assessment, an initial exploration of these issues should indicate whether there are any obvious issues or difficulties that will prevent the child living safely and happily as a member of the household. The views of household members will need to be more fully explored in any further assessment that is undertaken, however.

n) Working relationships with professionals

Potential carers need to be able to work with professionals, at least whilst the future care of the child is decided, and on an on-going basis if the child is looked after or special guardianship support is provided.

Sometimes, events may have led to tensions building up between social care staff and family members and communication may have become strained. Disagreements or differences of opinion during previous assessments and care planning processes that remain unresolved may have led to mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. An assessor who has had no previous involvement in this may be in a good position to develop their own relationship with the potential carer and place any previous difficulties into context.

The viability assessment process may feel particularly intrusive and challenging to carers who have little control over its nature and timing, so the assessor will need to be sensitive to their feelings. The viability assessment needs to reach an informed view on how able the potential carer is to work with professionals in the child’s life moving forward and on how open, transparent, and dependable they will be in their role of caring for the child.

o) Potential placement options

One option to be considered in a viability assessment is whether the carer should be fully assessed to become a family and friends foster carer, either for as long as the child needs the placement, or as an interim position before moving to special guardianship. Where the care plan for the child is that they are and/or will remain looked after, assessors will need to be sufficiently familiar with the fostering regulations to be able to explain to the potential carers what is required of foster carers. This is essential in enabling carers to consider whether they are willing and able to comply with those requirements.

In practice, tensions can arise when applying the requirements of foster care to family and friends carers who will often have come to fostering in a different context from those who have made a life decision to put themselves forward to foster children who they do not know. Many will have been approached to care for their relative and will see themselves as family members rather than foster carers. Requirements such as supervision, reviews, training, and record keeping may seem intrusive and unhelpful. However, such requirements apply to family and friends carers in the same way as for unrelated foster carers (although there are some areas of specific consideration in the assessment of family and friends as foster carers; Standard 30 of the National Minimum Standards12 recognises the need for services that take account of the particular needs of family and friends foster carers).

The assessor should briefly explain these requirements to the potential carer, who may then:

  • Decide they are not able or willing to comply with the requirements of being a foster carer in the longer term but may be able to do this sufficiently for a short period in anticipation of becoming special guardian
  • Come to a better understanding of fostering (through the assessment process, in which they have developed a good relationship with the assessing social worker) and start to recognise the benefits of the support offered, such as supervision and training
  • Decide to comply with the demands being made on them in order to be able to care for the child as a looked after child and access the financial and other support associated with foster care.

Except in the most extreme circumstances (i.e., where they are being openly hostile and/or effectively refusing to engage meaningfully with the local authority) a potential carer should not, therefore, be ruled out at the viability stage because they will not meet fostering expectations. The capacity of the carer to meet the child’s needs for the duration of the proposed placement, taking into account the wishes and feelings of the child, should be considered alongside any concerns about the carer’s role as a foster carer to ensure the needs of the child is kept central to the process.

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