by Ricki Steed
My first experience with viability assessments occurred when I was shadowing Jean*, a social worker who as part of a case in pre-proceedings was assessing the aunt of a 2-year-old child about whom the council had ongoing concerns.
Viability assessments are a way to quickly and effectively gather all the necessary information that determines whether an adult is deemed appropriate to be an alternative carer for a child who may be unable to stay with their parent.
The information is gathered by meeting face-to-face with the adult, collecting police information about the individual (if appropriate) and looking at historical social services documentation that may contribute further details to learn whether the person being assessed would be appropriate to care for the child.
I admired the way Jean clearly and appropriately explained the viability process and ensured the aunt she was interviewing was at ease.
Jean did not ask questions directly off the assessment, but drew upon the family’s experiences and history to allow the woman to comprehend clearly what she was being asked. Rather than state ‘can you explain to me your prior experiences of parenting?’ She stated ‘I know you see your nephew regularly and he sometimes stays the night, can you talk to me about what you get up to when he is here?’
Whilst the woman spoke, Jean would ask further questions to ensure a comprehensive answer.
Jean would also empathise with the aunt, which made what is rather an intrusive process less awkward and more relaxed. She would state ‘I know how difficult the last 6 months have been for your family’ or ‘I know some of the questions are quite difficult to answer, so if you want me to stop for the day, let me know’.
I came away from the experience feeling very positive about the approach I had seen Jean use, and the rapport created between her and the aunt.
A week later I was asked to do a viability assessment on a grandmother that a judge had requested for a case currently in proceedings.
“No pressure,” the social worker stated.
She explained they had ruled the grandmother out due to there being previous social services involvement, however, the judge had requested a comprehensive assessment of why the grandmother would not be an appropriate carer.
I gathered the relevant information and arranged a meeting. As I had read the case notes and checked the historical involvements on the system, I was able to use the skills I had learnt from Jean in regards to building a rapport with the grandmother, and make sure I asked the questions in a way she could understand.
I asked the questions in an informal way, ensuring I used the children’s names and referring to information relating to the local authority’s concerns. It was a difficult and emotive situation, and I ascertained the power and influence social workers have upon people. I ensured I was friendly and professional and thanked her for her time.
Typing up the assessment was harder than I had anticipated. The grandmother’s answers did not always correlate with the police and local authority information, and I felt surprised and hurt when I realised she had lied to me about some information.
This was somewhat naïve on my part, but I feel it is all part of my learning experience. My assessment conclusion was negative. I further realised that within the social work role, viability assessments are but a small part of the skills and practice undertaken on a day to day basis of a child protection worker, but they are ultimately life changing for the children and families that we work with.
I was glad I took my time with the assessment (which was complimented upon by my practice educator for being comprehensive and validated) because it did not matter to me about it being used in court, but it was critical that I had done a piece of work that was justifiable, and clearly stated my reasons why the assessment was negative.
I have recognised that we, as social workers, must ensure the decisions that we make are fundamentally in the best interests of the children we care for, because we have a significant role that impacts on their futures and their lives that should ultimately be better because of the decisions we make.
*Name has been changed.