SGO Assessment – Starting at the beginning – What is a Viability Assessment?

You may be wondering what a viability assessment has to do with a special guardianship assessment? Let me explain, a viability assessment is the start of the process that most applicants will go through before a Special Guardianship assessment will be started. So, what information is in a viability assessment and how do you ensure that you are completing them properly. Let’s get started and look at the key areas covered during a viability assessment.

What is a Viability Assessment Visit?

The viability assessment visit is the very start of the process. It means what it says, it is a one-off visit to the prospective kinship carers. The visit is to determine whether that person is able to provide full-time care and meet the needs of a child who is not able to remain with their parent/s. The visit is to find out how viable that arrangement would be. A viability visit will give the chance to see the physical conditions in the prospective carer‘s home. It will also look at the indicators that would help to decide a recommendation, of its suitability or not continue with any further assessment.

How long does it take to complete a Viability Assessment?

A viability assessment is a one-off visit. It will usually last around one to two hours to complete the visit. The outcome may take anything from a few days to a week. This is because the viability assessment will need to be written up and agreed upon by senior management before the prospective applicant is advised of the outcome.

The purpose of a viability assessment is to decide one of two things: –

  1. If a child needs to be placed immediately.

This means that the full SGO assessment will be completed whilst the child is already in the prospective carer’s care. If the child has a legal order in place such as an Interim Care Order, then this type of arrangement is referred to as a Regulation 24 placement, also called Reg 24 for short. This means that this becomes a temporary fostering arrangement, which can last for up to 16 weeks. During that time, a full assessment would need to be carried out of the prospective carer, within that timescale, to ensure that the placement can continue beyond this. Regulation 24 placements can only be extended once for a further 8 weeks, for example, if there was any delay in obtaining information such as statutory checks and medicals, etc. This extension will enable the placement to continue beyond 16 weeks, which is in the best interest of the child.

  • If a child is already in a mainstream foster placement, then the Court will want all alternative kinship applicants to be assessed during the Court proceedings. In this case, the viability assessment and SGO Assessment will be completed whilst the child in not in the care of the prospective applicant. The further assessment, Special Guardianship, Family and Friends Fostering or both, will look at how the prospective carer would manage if that was to become the long-term plan for the child.

The Court in such cases will direct a viability assessment to be completed of any family member or connected person put forward by either of the parents.

However, the Local Authority also needs to do their due diligence and ensure that all significant family members are also traced and assessed even if the parents refuse for this to happen. Whilst there may be valid reasons provided by them, for example, a relevant history that involved the identified individuals, attempts should be made to explore this information with the parents where possible in deciding whether it is suitable to progress any assessment.

What Happens at a Viability Visit?

Viability visits are quite different from the full Special Guardianship Assessment. Viabilities are noticeably clear cut. They are looking at a snapshot, a picture so to speak of what that family is like at a given point in time. It is a one-off visit. You can often tell a lot from this one visit. The viability will be gathering information about the family background, their understanding of the concerns, their relationship with the child, their relationship with the parents, how contact will be managed, their parenting experience, an inspection of the home, and observation of the bedroom identified for the child.

How do you know what to look for when completing a viability visit?

What makes a good viability assessment?

A good viability assessment will provide an understanding of the applicant’s ability to provide care and to meet a specific child’s needs. It should be a realistic option of what an alternative carer is able to provide, both currently and into the future, taking into account their own responsibilities against the needs of the child they wish to care for. The viability should reach an evidence-based decision, which is factual. The Viability Assessment uses the National Minimum Standards for Fostering as a guideline when assessing prospective family members. A good viability assessment will identify the strengths, the vulnerabilities, and which areas require further assessment.

What areas does the viability assessment cover?

Each Local Authority has different forms to gather this information. Family Rights Group has produced a viability assessment template on which many Local Authorities use or at least have based their own Viability Assessment form upon.

Here are the basic areas you should ensure to cover on a Viability Assessment visit:-

Statutory checks – you should find out whether the applicants are known to any Local Authorities with regard to any care they have provided to children. You need to advise them that you will check their address history with the relevant Local Authorities. Good practice would be to cover this for at least 7 years, but you may need to look further if this is relevant.

Do they have any criminal convictions? A full DBS will be needed but a PNC (Police and Criminal Evidence computer system) check should be completed prior to any placement of a child if a DBS has not been completed.

Relationships are going to be key. After all the reason for placing children within their family is so they can benefit from those relationships and develop a sense of their family identity.

The prospective carer’s relationship with the child is crucial. What is their existing relationship and why have they come forward? You want to find out their relationship with the child. Have they ever cared for the child? What do they know about the child? What about family relationships? What is their relationship with the child’s parents?

Do they understand what the Local Authority’s concerns are? This is often a difficult one for family members. Some family members will understand the worries that are held, they may even have contacted the Local Authority themselves which demonstrates their understanding and ability to protect a child from further harm.

However, it is more likely that you will find many family members, may not have reached this stage as yet. It is a process and sometimes the news is shocking to them as well. It may be hard for them to understand and believe that their family member has caused harm to a child. Grandparents especially find this hard to accept that their son or daughter has done this.

Suitability of Accommodation. You will need to look around the accommodation and sight the room identified for the child/ren. You will need to assess what changes they would need to make in the home, to make it suitable for a child/ren, especially if the placement is to be imminent or the children are already there.  

Obtain a brief account of their own childhood and experience of being parented. What was childhood like for them? Was it positive or not and would they be willing to discuss this more fully in the SGO assessment?

If they have parented before or are parents, you will want to find out about their experience of this. You will need to talk to schools and any professionals involved with their own children. Advise them that the full assessment will need to talk to adult children even if living away from the home.

The support network is another key factor at play. You will need to find out early on who is in their friendship and family support network. Do they have enough people to provide as personal referees? Who would support them with any practical help? Who could they turn to emotionally?

Impact on the family. Family members at this time are thinking with their hearts, and this is probably the right place for them to start. But there are also practicalities which they need to consider. You will need to find out if they have thought about any changes that they will need to make in their home and lifestyle. How will they balance the practical day-to-day care responsibilities alongside working? If they have hobbies that take them out who will do the caring? What will the impact be on their own children?  

Possibilities of this becoming Long Term. Family members often put themselves forward with a view that a child will return to their parents in a few months or a few years’ time. At the viability stage, they often do not realise that this could become a realistic long-term plan for a child. It is important to remind them at this early stage that the Local Authority is care planning for the long term for a child until they are 18 years of age.

Ex-partners and seeking references. Another area that should be raised is that of ex-partners, especially where there are children involved. They will need to be contacted as part of the further assessment. You should discuss any challenges that this may pose. There are some instances where it would not be suitable, for example, in cases of domestic violence and you would need to take a case-by-case approach in deciding how to proceed. In most instances, the ex-partner reference will be required, and this should be made clear early in the process.

viability assessment and special guardianship

What happens after a positive Viability Assessment?

If the viability assessment is positive, then you will need to inform the applicant of this. You should also provide them with a copy of the viability assessment so that they can check this for factual errors and also for redactions. The viability assessment should be filed with the Court.

After this, you should check the court order as the court would have outlined a date by which the full assessment will need to be completed. The full SGO assessment should be commenced.  

What happens after a negative Viability Assessment?

If the viability assessment outcome is negative, then you should inform the applicants of this in writing giving them the reasons for this. You should provide them with a copy of the viability assessment. You should advise them of the timescale in which to challenge the viability assessment (usually within 7-10 days) and how to do this (usually by writing to the Court).

Some Final Thoughts About Viability Assessments

If you carry out a viability assessment, this is a huge task. You are essentially gathering information to decide the future for a child. This one outcome could have a huge bearing on a child’s life. Viability assessments are important and should be given this value and should be completed with this in mind.

Challenges of Undertaking Viability Assessments

First impressions give away a lot. Viability Assessments are based on this one-off picture, which will determine whether an applicant will go forward to the full assessment. We have previously discussed the importance of building relationships with prospective SGO carers, which may lead you to wonder about the merits of making such value judgments after one visit.

We know that within a full SGO assessment, it can still be challenging to possibly know everything about a family within the 6-12 weeks timescales for a full assessment. If this is the case, then how could you possibly make that decision with just one visit? Viability Assessment can seem a huge task. Because they are.

What you need to recognise, that just because a viability assessment is positive does not mean the SGO will be positive. However, this may mean that there are more indicators that point that way.

As you continue your special guardianship assessment, you may uncover a whole lot more beneath the surface. As you build that relationship with SGO carers and really get to know the family, you start to prick below the surface.

Just like in any relationship that you have, when you first meet someone, you work out do we have anything in common and how do we keep this conversation going. If there is enough basis, then you continue the conversation, if not then you walk away and start another conversation. This is the link between Viability Assessments and the full SGO assessment, the viability assessment is the start of the conversation.

The viability assessment will provide a basic guide about the applicant’s commitment to the child/ren and recommendation about whether they appear able to manage the task of caring for the child or not.

Occasionally there are borderline instances where it is not so clear, and you are unsure. Perhaps the applicants demonstrate enough strengths to suggest that they could possibly manage to provide good enough care, but there are also some areas of concern.  

In such instances, I would give them the benefit of doubt and progress them to start the full assessment. It will soon become clear within the first few visits whether they have the capacity and therefore this will make the SGO assessment much stronger. It is better to do this than to rule them out early on, only to find that the proceedings are delayed due to the Judge’s orders that their full SGO assessment still is completed on the balance of probabilities that it may have been positive.

If you believe that the applicant/s are not suitable and need to rule them out at the viability stage with a negative viability assessment, then you must have clear factual reasons for doing so. This must not be flimsy like “we have concerns that they will not manage the issue”. You need to be clear, what are the concerns?

Identify them?

Why don’t you believe they will not be able to manage?

What are the specific issues?

What factual evidence do you have for this view?

When I read viability assessments, what is annoying, is reading fleeting statements where the real problem is not identified in plain language. Or it is outlined but in technical social work speak.

For example,

they have not been open and honest

they will not be able to prioritise their grandchildren over their child

they do not understand the concerns”.

When completing viability assessments, do not write sweeping statements like this. You should outline exactly what you mean and give an example of how you have arrived at this information. What facts do you have to suggest this? Was this something that was said? Is it based on behaviour past or present?  A Viability Assessment should not be vague, these broad statements must be challenged.  

Is there a National Minimum Standard for Family and Friends Carers?

There is an important criterion within a Viability Assessment, that is NMS Standard 30 – Family and Friends as Foster Carers, which is in place specifically when assessing Family and Friends/Connected Person carers. This standard is in place to provide Family and Friends/kinship carers with the support they require to meet the needs of children placed with them.

If your Viability Assessment is negative, you should apply NMS Standard 30 to the assessment.

STANDARD 30 – Family and friends as foster carers
Underpinning Legislation:
17 – Support, training and information for foster parents
Relevant Legislation:
Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 –
regulation 24 and 25
 Family and friends foster carers receive the support they require to meet the
needs of children placed with them.

Basically, this is to find out if there is any further support that you think the prospective SGO carer will need in order to reach the National Minimum Standards. For example, would they benefit from training in a specific area? Will they need additional support visits? Support to move to a larger home. Financial support to care for a child. Support with transport for school or contact if they don’t drive. Support from an experienced foster carer or linking them to support groups, if isolated.

It is important to address how any prospective applicant can be supported in order to care for a child in their family. We need to know that we have done everything possible to prevent a child from being adopted outside of their family, especially if there is a family member who wishes to care for them, but who may just need a little more help.

If you think that they may meet the standards, when provided with further support then you should recommend a full Fostering/SGO assessment is completed. This will allow time to provide support during the assessment period and assess if this will make a difference for the prospective carer.

In Summary: What is a Viability Assessment and why is it relevant to Special Guardianship?

Viability Assessments are the start of the SGO process. They are a one-off visit and will take around 1-2 hours to complete. The purpose of a viability assessment is to make a recommendation of the suitability of a prospective applicant to continue to a further assessment, either as a Family and Friends Foster carer, Special Guardian, or both. The Viability Assessment covers the applicant’s relationship with the child, their parenting experiences, observation of the home, understanding of the applicant’s ability to meet a child’s needs currently and into the future. The outcome will determine whether there is any further assessment or not.

Most applicants, going through a Special Guardianship assessment will start off with a viability assessment, and this article covered the aspects that are important when completing a viability assessment.

Special Guardianship Info –  Giving SGO a Voice