AGE ASSESSMENT GUIDANCE

Guidance to assist social workers and their managers in undertaking age assessments in England

 

ADCS Age_Assessment_Guidance_2015_click to download for PDF view.

 

 

Introduction

 

The age assessment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum is a challenging process. This document is designed to address the gap there has been in national guidance on this topic by providing user-friendly practice guidance to social workers.

 

Those of us who have been involved in writing this guidance have direct experience in the age assessment process, either as social workers, social work managers, advocates, or solicitors for children and young people who are age assessed. We have seen the challenges faced by young people and the repercussions when things do not go well. We have had the pleasure of supporting children and young people through their journeys within the UK. We have also experienced the stress of working in pressurised local authority environments with limited resources.

 

We have tried to bring together these experiences to create guidance on best practice during the age assessment process, while also acknowledging the challenges social workers face in their day-to-day work. With that in mind, we have kept the guidance itself intentionally brief, and we have put more detailed information in the appendices.

 

Age assessments are a controversial subject, and indeed there is a robust debate on whether social workers should complete age assessments at all. While we acknowledge the contested nature of age assessments, some children arrive in the UK whose age may be unclear, unknown or disputed. The fact remains that social workers are currently required to complete age assessments in England so as to ensure any service a child requires is provided appropriate to their age and assessed needs. Social workers, by nature of their education, experience and specialist skills in working with and interviewing vulnerable children and young people, are uniquely positioned to undertake holistic assessments. This guidance aims to support social workers seeking to make the best assessment of age possible.

 

As for all work with vulnerable children and young people, it is important to engage with the network of professionals who may be supporting them. The views of a teacher, psychologist, police officer, paediatrician or other relevant practitioner should always be considered where available. In the event that a number of agencies have been involved, a Professionals Meeting may help synthesise the social worker’s views. We recognise that some professionals may currently feel unable to comment on age, and we hope that in the future other agencies, such as paediatricians and police, will develop their own guidance in relation to age assessment practice. The key is for agencies to work together in a child-focussed manner.

 

In this guidance, our use of the words “children” and “young people” has been very deliberate. In the majority of cases, we use the word “child” when it is very clear we are

 

 

discussing an individual that is under the age of 18. We use the term “young person” when we are not yet sure whether the individual is under 18, but if they could very well be. Even if after an age assessment it is acknowledged that a young person is under the age of 18, we may continue to use “young person” as many adolescents do not appreciate being called “children”. We have tried to use language which the young people we know and support would be comfortable with.

 

We have also used checklists, but intentionally not used tick boxes, in each chapter. The questions asked are designed to support good practice, and are set out with the intention of guiding the discussion with the child and other agencies, not as a list of “everything I need to cover.” As every child and young person is different, so every interview will be different, and social workers will need to modify questions and their approach depending on the unique qualities of each presenting young person.

 

The goal is to make the process accessible to all social workers. There is some repetition, which serves both to emphasise salient points and to acknowledge that some will read only the chapters that they need at a particular time. This is guidance for best social work practice with this vulnerable group of children and young people, considering their human rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, while understanding the demands on local authority social workers and managers. The information provided is accurate at the time of publication.

 

This guidance has been produced concurrently with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and Home Office Age Assessment Joint Working Guidance (JWG). The JWG is designed to assist local authorities and the Home Office in negotiating joint working and information sharing. The JWG should be read in conjunction with this document, which is specifically to help social workers complete the best age assessments possible, bearing in mind the needs of young people. They are separate and distinct documents, but work together to aid all involved in reaching appropriate outcomes for unaccompanied, asylum-seeking young people.

 

We are confident that this practice guidance gives social workers the tools to complete age assessments in a child-friendly way, using best social work practice and ethics and utilising the knowledge of all agencies involved in the life of the child to inform the holistic assessment of a young person’s age.

 

Chapter 1 – Do you need to undertake this age assessment?

 

Checklist:

 

  • Is it absolutely necessary to undertake this age assessment?

 

  • A needs assessment should be separate from an age assessment (though the age assessment may help to inform the needs assessment)

Statutory guidance on the care of unaccompanied children states that:

 

Age assessments should only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children.1

 

The phrase “significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child” has led to considerable discussion amongst professionals involved in age assessment practice. What one social worker deems a “significant reason” may differ from another social worker’s opinion. Our interpretation of this guidance is that age assessments should not be carried out on every child or young person approaching a local authority seeking support, but should be used to ensure that appropriate services (including education) are offered. In order to be able to assess the needs of a child, the social worker must be satisfied that the individual is a child, but young people should not be subjected to multiple assessments for administrative purposes only. A social worker should be clear what the “significant reason” is to doubt the age, and this should be conveyed to the young person.

 

This guidance is also relevant where all parties accept that the young person is a child but where the exact age is not clear. Many children and young people will not be able to provide evidence as to their age, and some may not even know their own chronological age. However, for any individual in the UK to receive services including health, education and identity documents, they will require a date of birth. Any assessment should be limited to the minimum necessary to ensure the child or young person receives the appropriate services and educational support for their age and development.

 

In other circumstances, the child or young person will be able to produce clear information about their age, for example, from documents or from reference to education. Lengthy

assessments which ask children and young people difficult and distressing questions should be avoided unless you are clear that this is likely to be helpful and productive.

Where you have decided that a standalone age assessment is not necessary, it will be helpful to make a note on the child or young person’s file that you have accepted their claimed age, and why. This may help to avoid unnecessary confusion at a later date.

There may be occasions where you do not feel that an age assessment is necessary but where the Home Office requests an assessment before it will treat the young person as a child in the immigration process. In these circumstances you may need to negotiate with the Home Office to explain why the young person should be treated as a child without further assessment, or conduct an assessment sufficiently comprehensive that it enables the Home Office to be assured that the assessment is case-law compliant, as children may find multiple assessments repetitive and potentially distressing. The principle of the best interests of the child should always guide your decision making and work with children. Where an age assessment is unavoidable, it may be possible to use information which you have already gathered, for example, as part of your Looked After Child (LAC) assessments, rather than conducting further in-depth interviews which may cause unnecessary distress to the child or young person. Upon the conclusion of the age assessment, you will need to complete the Model Information Sharing Proforma attached at Appendix A to share your decision with the Home Office.

Age disputing a child or young person can affect the way they engage with their social worker, and the repeated questioning of their credibility and identity can leave children and young people feeling angry and bewildered. In this context, it is important that age assessments are not undertaken unless absolutely necessary.

The authors acknowledge and accept that some adults do claim to be children. In some rare circumstances, it will be very clear that the individual is an adult well over the age of 18, so prolonged inquiry may not be required, as stated in the Merton judgement.2 Even in these rare circumstances when you are making a relatively quick decision, you are still undertaking an assessment, albeit a brief one, and you must record the rationale for your decision as well as share your decision with the individual being assessed. Where required to share that decision with the Home Office, you should still use the Model Information Sharing Proforma (attached at Appendix A).

 

 

  • See paragraph 50 of the Merton 2003 judgement: ‘Cases will vary from those in which the answer is obvious to those in which it is far from being so, and the level of inquiry unnecessary in one type of case will be necessary in another.’ R (B) v London Borough of Merton [2003] EWHC 1689 (Admin). Available at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2003/1689.html

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – Before you start

Checklist:

 

  • Might the child or young person have been trafficked or experienced abuse?

 

  • Does the child or young person have any other additional needs, aside from being

 

alone in the UK? For example:

 

o Might they have physical, mental or emotional health difficulties? o Might they have learning difficulties?

Might their experiences in their country of origin or during their journey to the

 

UK have an impact on their ability to respond fully to questions you will be asking them?

 

  • What is the current immigration status of the child or young person and do they need assistance with that before and/or after your assessment?

 

  • Is the child or young person in suitable accommodation before and after the assessment?

 

Trafficking

 

Since the inception of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for victims of trafficking, an increasing number of children have been identified as potential victims of trafficking.3 At the time of writing, the NRM process had been reviewed, and a pilot scheme was being implemented to recognise victims of trafficking. As a social worker, you have an important role to play in ensuring the safety of trafficked children and young people.

 

Many trafficked children and young people go missing within 48 hours of becoming looked after. Suspicions of trafficking require a bold and immediate response to keep the child or young person safe, and a Section 47 enquiry and the development of a robust safety plan will be appropriate in most cases. Where there is uncertainty about age, a suspected victim of trafficking must be presumed to be a child and be accorded special protection measures pending assessment of their age.4

 

Children and young people who have been trafficked into the UK are likely to have had experiences which have an impact on their ability to participate fully and openly in an age assessment. Aside from the physical, sexual or emotional abuse they may have suffered,

 

 

 

 

 

many trafficked children have been forced by their traffickers to learn a story to tell if they are questioned. Many children and young people are under threat directly themselves, or may have family members elsewhere who are under threat, or perceived threat. Children and young people may not know at this stage who they can trust. As a result, they may give information that is later contradictory to information provided initially. This is not necessarily an indication that a child or young person is trying to deceive social workers, and should not be considered as such. Social workers need to look at the situation holistically and consider the circumstances surrounding each child or young person.

 

Trafficked children and young people may have been provided with documents by their traffickers which are either false, or are genuine documents but not belonging to the child or young person. For example, it is common for visa applications with incorrect details to be made to enable the movement of children from one country to another. The existence of a document does not necessarily prove someone’s age.

 

Your Local Safeguarding Children Board is now required to have local guidance for working with trafficked children. The London Safeguarding Children Board has also published comprehensive guidance and a toolkit for working with trafficked children, which is accessible to all via their website.5

 

Please see Appendix B for more information regarding trafficking and working with victims of trafficking.

 

Additional needs and vulnerabilities

 

Many of the children and young people you assess will have needs and vulnerabilities beyond being a young person in a new country on their own, and you should bear that in mind when planning their assessment. Most assessing social workers will not be able to diagnose physical, mental or emotional health difficulties or learning difficulties, or the effects of trauma, but should be alert to the fact that the young person in front of them has undergone experiences which are likely to have a serious impact on their development and on their ability to answer clearly all questions put to them.

 

Much of the assessment is likely to rely on what the child or young person tells the assessing social workers. There is a significant body of research casting doubt on the accuracy of ‘normal’ memory, and most people have difficulties in accurately and repeatedly recalling some things in their lives. Children and young people are likely to find it even harder to recall and recount distressing memories clearly. Further, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are the most common psychiatric diagnoses in asylum seekers, and

 

 

 

 

those illnesses impact on memory.6 PTSD and depression may also affect how a child or young person is able to engage with questioning, their ability to concentrate and their demeanour, as well as their ability to recall and provide coherent narratives. These difficulties will be particularly prevalent for those children and young people who have been tortured.

 

While separated children and young people who have survived torture may show distress, it is also very common for them not to show emotion or ‘appropriate’ emotion. That can often be due to avoidance or dissociation, which are unconscious psychological processes operating to defend an individual against re-experiencing or being overwhelmed by memories and/or feelings of traumatic experiences and distress.7 Similarly, avoidance or dissociation can often be wrongly interpreted as the child or young person being vague or evasive. There may be a risk that stereotypical and erroneous assumptions about trauma are made in relation to children and young people who are survivors of torture such as ‘she did not cry’ or ‘he didn’t react very strongly’. Flashbacks can also be triggered during an age assessment which may be misinterpreted as acting out behaviour.

 

It is also important to consider the fact that children and young people may have experienced or witnessed questioning under torture as part of their experiences of persecution. Consideration should be given to the impact that this might have on their responses, including fear or mistrust of people in positions of authority. Therefore power imbalances between the child or young person and the adults present in the interview(s) must be considered at all stages of the process. As a result of their age and experiences, children and young people may be overly compliant and answer questions in the affirmative in order to please interviewers, to protect themselves from anticipated harm, or to avoid painful or distressing memories. Avoidance of painful memories and shame and stigma attached to humiliating experiences of abuse may lead to confused narratives, inconsistencies or non-disclosure of significant events.

 

Please see Appendix C for further information regarding trauma and memory.

 

There is also the difficulty of communicating across different cultures. It is not possible within the scope of this guidance to cover all aspects of cultural difference and misunderstanding; however, as a social worker you will recognise the complexity of identity and diversity and apply anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles to your practice. You should be mindful of how cultural norms and individual experiences may shape

 

 

See also Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law: http://www.csel.org.uk/csel_publications.html

  • For example see the Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law:

http://www.csel.org.uk/csel_publications.html and National Centre for Biotechnology Information:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

 

 

 

communication styles and expectations, including gesture and body language, vocabulary, and understanding of what information and feelings can or should be shared with someone you have just met and who represents authority.

 

At the time of assessment, the child or young person may have made a recent claim for asylum. They may have been questioned several times in recent days about their history by, for example, immigration officers and other Home Office officials, or solicitors. Some children and young people may never have been questioned about their lives in this way before, and may be confused, stressed or distressed by what they perceive to be repeated questioning and disbelief about their lives, for reasons which they do not understand.

 

Immigration status

 

It is important that you know the immigration status of the child or young person you are assessing. You may need to take urgent action in relation to their asylum application if they have made one, and their status may dictate their options for support after your assessment. Sometimes the Home Office will wait for the outcome of the age assessment before they conduct their substantive asylum interview. While it is important that the age assessment process is not rushed, any unnecessary delays should be avoided.

 

Please see Appendix D for further information.

 

Suitable accommodation

 

You will need to plan for suitable accommodation before, during and after the assessment. See the Department for Education statutory guidance on the ‘Care of unaccompanied and trafficked children’ for more help and information with regard to this.8

 

Other than in exceptional circumstances, children and young people will be looked after under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 whilst the age assessment process continues. In many circumstances a foster placement should be provided, and the child or young person will benefit from that level of care and support in their early days as they recover from the experiences they had before they left their home country and whilst on their journey. You may have concerns about placing an unknown young person in a family setting, and you should bear in mind the lack of background knowledge you have when deciding with which family to place them. However, some young people may benefit from being placed in shared accommodation with other young people who have similar language and experiences. Whether in foster care or other accommodation, recently arrived children and young people will usually need a high level of support to ensure that they are safe and well, and that they

 

 

 

understand what is happening to them in the confusing first few weeks. Simple things like eating and sleeping properly can make a big difference to a child or young person’s ability to participate fully in any assessment.

 

‘I stayed in a small hotel for a week. A man came in a taxi and said we are going to [local authority]. I asked how far, he said maybe 30 minutes. We got there and the taxi driver told me to go in. I waited for a while and the social worker told me to wait for an interpreter.’

 

(A young woman who was very confused about the process, and who was frightened about travelling alone in cars and entering strange buildings by herself, not knowing what was going to happen.)

 

All children and young people need safe and supportive accommodation, but particular care must be given to planning accommodation for potential victims of trafficking who may be at risk of going missing very soon after discovery. Specialist placement should be considered for these children and young people.

 

Bed and breakfast accommodation is not suitable for any child under the age of 18, even on an emergency basis.

 

Please refer to Appendix E for additional information on placements.

 

If the young person is assessed to be an adult, you should in the first instance assist them to return to the relevant immigration service. Your local authority may need to continue to provide accommodation in the short term to ensure that they are not left homeless while they transition to other support; proper planning can make this process as smooth and quick as possible.

 

Clear protocols and effective liaison with your placements team and your local housing department can help to ensure that appropriate accommodation is provided for children/ young people in a range of circumstances. Two-tier local authorities may not have direct access to Housing Departments so will need to negotiate with the District/Borough Councils in their area.

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – Planning and preparation

Checklist:

 

  • Do you have a clear work plan for preparing, conducting and concluding the age assessment and have you allocated time for the relevant tasks?

 

  • Has the child or young person been informed that an age assessment is going to be conducted, and are arrangements in place to ensure they been given the information they need about the process and the support available to them?

 

  • Have arrangements been made for an appropriate adult and interpreter to assist with the interview/s?

 

  • Has a suitable venue been arranged?

 

  • Has relevant country of origin and background information been collated and read by both assessing social workers?

 

  • Have arrangements been made to gather any relevant information available from other sources, including any documentation?

 

 

Planning and preparing well for an age assessment is important to ensure a fair, good-quality and effective assessment. The process needs to be sensitive to the needs of the child or young person being assessed to enable them to participate to the best of their ability in the assessment interview(s).

 

‘My first understanding about age assessment came after they had finished the assessment; they told me what it was. After that my solicitor explained it to me.’

 

(A young woman, who had been very distressed before and during her assessment and did not know why she was being asked questions which upset her.)

 

There are a number of tasks that need to be undertaken at the planning stage and time to complete them all will need to be allocated.

 

Allocating social workers

 

Managers need to allocate two qualified and Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered social workers to undertake the assessment (see Appendix N). Both social workers must have experience of working with children and young people, and of undertaking assessments of children in need. Best practice would be that at least one social worker has experience of working with young asylum seekers and undertaking age assessments. Where this proves practically difficult, local authorities may wish to consider using an independent social worker with relevant experience or making arrangements with other local authorities.

 

Both assessing social workers must be clear about the relevant procedures and remit of the assessment. The remit of an age assessment is to make a determination of someone’s age, not to assess their asylum application. Social workers need to be mindful that the child or young person may have been “coached” on aspects of their account, but this does not necessarily mean they are being untruthful about their age.

 

You also need to be aware of the potential indicators of human trafficking. If information arises during the planning process that indicates a child or young person may have been trafficked, appropriate action must be taken to safeguard them (refer to Chapter 2 for more information).

 

Where possible, managers need to give consideration to gender issues in allocating assessing social workers, as the assessment may incorporate discussion of sensitive issues such as puberty, relationships, trauma and sexual assault. Best practice would allow the child or young person to discuss in advance any particular requests they have in regard to their interviewers.

 

Responsibility for work

 

Roles in planning the assessment and conducting the interview(s) need to be discussed and agreed between both social workers and your manager, and will take into account the skills and experience of the workers involved. Tasks will include gathering information, practical arrangements such as booking a venue, an interpreter and an appropriate adult, planning the assessment interviews, gathering and reviewing any information already available, and drafting the assessment report. You may also wish to formulate some areas of discussion or questions in preparation for the interview(s).

 

Information gathering

 

Assessing social workers will need to give consideration to the country of origin and culture of the child or young person being assessed. It is helpful to have information about religion, religious festivals, lifestyles, markers of maturity, the education system and so on. There are a number of sources which can assist with this including country of origin reports.

 

Please refer to Appendix F for further information on the use of country of origin information.

 

As well as gathering factual information to assist in understanding the history and life account of the child or young person being assessed, you also need to be aware of cultural and societal differences. These may include differences in verbal and non-verbal communication styles, attitudes towards authority, power, gender and age and towards sharing personal information. It is not possible for this guidance to give a compendium of all cultural information, and no guidance will cover every person as each is an individual with their own experiences and understanding; however, an awareness and acknowledgement that these differences exist is important.

 

Information gathering in preparation for an age assessment may also mean scheduling time for reviewing current research in other relevant areas, such as PTSD and the impact of trauma upon memory.9 Further information gathering may be required following the age assessment interview(s), to explore any issues which have been raised.

 

Information from other sources

 

Foster carers, key workers, social care workers, advocates, teachers and college tutors may be involved in working with a child or young person depending upon their circumstances and placement arrangements, and they are likely to have high levels of contact with the child or young person. Their observations of children and young people in different settings and interactions with peers and other adults can make a useful contribution to your assessments. It is good practice to gather the information available prior to conducting the age assessment interview(s) with the child or young person.

 

You will need to consider the weight given to different sources of information. For example, you may attach greater weight to the views of a professional who has worked with a number of asylum-seeking children and young people from the same country of origin as the child or young person being assessed than you would to someone who has no previous experience of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people.

 

Where the information available at the planning stage indicates the child or young person may have mental health issues or learning difficulties, further information or assessments may need to be sought. These potential needs will have to be considered both in conducting the interview(s) and in analysing the information.

 

Many children and young people seeking asylum enter the UK without documentation. However, where a child or young person has or later obtains documentation, the assessing workers may need to consider expert authentication of any document. As a general rule, an embassy should not be contacted if the child’s application for asylum or other international

 

  • Helpful online resources on PTSD and memory include:

Graham, B., Herlihy, J. and Brewin, C.R. (2014) “Overgeneral memory in asylum seekers and refugees” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, pp. 375-380. Available from: http://csel.org.uk/resources/graham-herlihy-brewin-2014-jbtep or directly at: http://csel.org.uk/assets/images/resources/graham-herlihy-brewin-2014-jbtep/graham-herlihy-brewin-overgeneral-memory.pdf

 

Royal College of Psychiatrists Public Education Committee (2013) Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Available from: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/posttraumaticstressdisorder.aspx   protection has not been finally determined, as the child’s state may have been fully or partially responsible for the ill-treatment and/or persecution he or she has suffered or fears in the future. Similarly, there may also be serious risks involved in contacting organisations either in the UK or in the child or young person’s country of origin. Alerting others to the presence of the child or young person in the UK may place them and/or their family at risk, now or in the future.10

 

Location/venue

 

The venue for the age assessment interview(s) needs to be conducive to helping the child or young person feel safe, comfortable and able to participate to the best of their ability in their interview(s). If a child or young person requests a specific venue for the interview(s) then that should be facilitated if it is appropriate and possible.

 

Facilities such as police stations would not be considered appropriate for conducting age assessments, and every effort should be made to take a child or young person out of a police station in order to conduct a lawful assessment. If you have difficulty in securing the release of the child or young person into your care for the purpose of age assessment, you may wish to refer to the Age Assessment Joint Working Guidance which states that police stations are not appropriate settings for age assessments. If necessary you can make an initial assessment ‘without prejudice’ to secure release, before conducting a further assessment at a more appropriate place and time.

 

For information on the assessment of young people who are detained within the criminal justice system, see Appendix G, or for young people who are in immigration detention, Appendix L.

 

The venue for the age assessment interview(s) needs to offer appropriate bathroom and drinks facilities. If the child or young person will be with you for some time then food and beverages should be provided. Similarly, a child or young person may arrive for the assessment without having eaten and may need to be provided with food before the interview commences. The room in which the interview is conducted must offer suitable seating, comfortable temperature and lighting, and be an appropriate size for the number of participants involved in the interview. A suitable quiet space needs to be available if the child or young person wishes to take a break during the course of the interview.

 

 

 

 

Interpreter

 

The interpreter must have the appropriate skills and qualifications to undertake their role and should be experienced in working with children and young people. The interpreter will need to have the ability to translate and use words that they may not be comfortable with. Where possible, consideration needs to be given to gender issues in allocating an interpreter as the assessment may incorporate discussion of sensitive issues such as puberty, relationships and trauma.

 

In order to ensure that they can participate to the best of their ability in the assessment interview(s), it is vital that the child or young person being assessed understands the questions being asked of them and that their responses are accurately interpreted. To facilitate this, when booking the interpreter, you must ensure the interpreter speaks both the correct language and dialect for the child or young person.

 

You need to be mindful that interpreters may come from small communities, and it is particularly important that the interpreter is aware of the need for confidentiality. Reiterating this at the start of the age assessment interview when the child or young person is present may enable them to feel safer and participate more fully in the assessment interview(s).

 

Interpreters should not offer their own views about the credibility of the child or young person’s account. They may be able to assist with explaining some cultural and country-specific issues in relation to what the child or young person is saying, but should not make general observations or judgements.

 

Best practice would be that the same interpreter is used for all age assessment interviews for the child or young person, unless the child or young person indicates that they do not wish for this to happen.

 

For more information about working with interpreters, please see Appendix H.

 

Appropriate adult

 

The appropriate adult must be independent of the local authority, have the relevant skills and training to undertake their role, and be experienced in working with children and young people. They need to be clear and confident about their role, have the skills to support the child or young person in the interview(s) and challenge social workers if they feel the interview is not being conducted appropriately. An appropriate adult should advocate on behalf of the child or young person, represent their best interests and ensure that the child or young person’s welfare needs are met during the interview process. Where relevant and possible, gender issues need to be considered when making arrangements for booking the appropriate adult.

 

 

 

For more information see Appendix J and the Coram Children’s Legal Centre factsheet on Appropriate Adults.11

 

Scheduling time for assessment

 

While the authors acknowledge the workload pressures for social workers, it is important that sufficient time is scheduled for all aspects of the work involved to enable the assessment to be completed promptly. This will include scheduling time for pre-assessment work as well as assessment interview(s), drafting the report and meeting with the young person to share the outcome of the assessment.

In scheduling the assessment interview(s), it is important to ensure that the child or young person has had sufficient time to recover from their journey to the UK, and is not tired or hungry. If the child or young person is fasting, then this also needs to be considered in planning the assessment interview(s).

 

Recording

 

You will need to plan how the interview(s) will be recorded; this may be dependent upon the facilities and resources available. Consideration could be given to taping or videoing the interview(s) where appropriate facilities are available, and any impact on the child or young person’s ability to participate fully will need to be considered. Detailed written notes must be taken if the interview is not recorded by other means. Social workers who take written notes should be mindful of how they engage with the child or young person and to be aware of non-verbal cues. Hand written notes do not need to be verbatim, however, they do need to cover all significant points. Even if the notes are subsequently typed, the hand written notes should be retained on the child or young person’s case record. On rare occasions in which an age dispute is heard in court, any handwritten notes must be provided. Scanned copies of hand written notes are acceptable to the court.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Conducting the interview(s)

 

 

Checklist:

 

  • Are two registered social workers present? The same social workers should be present for all interviews.

 

  • Have you explained and recorded the purpose of the interview(s), possible outcomes, the different roles of professionals and how the information may be shared?

 

  • Have you explained the role of the appropriate adult?

 

  • Does the child or young person understand the interpreter (e.g. correct dialect) and are they comfortable with them? Have you recorded that?

 

  • Have you checked on the welfare and well-being of the child or young person, and are they fit to be interviewed?

 

  • Are you alert to potential vulnerabilities of the child or young person, such as human trafficking, mental health concerns and any other safeguarding issues?

 

  • Have you given the child or young person the opportunity to think about and explain any inconsistencies and/or gaps in their account?

 

Most children and young people who are age assessed will be new arrivals to the UK, and may have experienced a long and frightening journey. They may be fleeing persecution in their country of origin and they may have been victims of torture or trauma. All of these children and young people have experienced loss and separation from their family. When conducting an age assessment, it is essential that you be sensitive to the past experiences of children and young people, to display empathy and build rapport. Adopting a sensitive approach to the interview process may assist you in gathering more detailed information from children and young people.12

 

Children and young people who are age assessed are unlikely to be familiar with the role of a social worker. They may also not understand why their age is being assessed, they may have had previous negative experiences with adults in positions of power or those who worked for government organisations or they may simply feel frightened. Children and

 

 

 

 

 

young people may provide inconsistent information about their life unrelated to their age (such as their reason for seeking asylum or their journey to the UK) in order to protect themselves or for other reasons; this does not necessarily mean they are an adult. As social workers conducting age assessments, you should be aware of possible indicators of human trafficking or any other safeguarding issues, and take appropriate action to safeguard a child or young person if this is identified during the interviews. It is also important to remember that the age assessment process is separate from determining an asylum application; it is not the role of the social worker to determine a child or young person’s immigration status.

 

Explaining the purpose of the interview and different roles

 

It is important that the child or young person understands the purpose of the age assessment interview at the start of the meeting, the difference between the Home Office and Children’s Services, and the possible outcomes of the age assessment.

 

Sample explanation of role:

 

Below is an example of what you might say when explaining the interview process to a child or young person. You should personalise this for each interview you conduct, taking into account the child or young person’s perceived level of understanding.

 

The purpose of this interview is to assess your age and to establish if you are a child in need of support from Children’s Services. We will be asking you questions about your life before you came to the UK. Sometimes it can be upsetting for people to talk about their experiences, so if you need to take a break, please just tell us. We will be taking notes during the interview to help us remember what you tell us. If you tell us anything we don’t understand or that doesn’t make sense to us, then we will ask you to clarify the information. If we have said or asked something you do not understand, please tell us, and we will rephrase what we have said to try to ensure you understand. We do not make the decision about whether you can stay in the UK; this decision is made by a different organisation called the Home Office. At the end of the interview(s), we will explain our decision about your age, and if we assess you as being under 18 years old, you will be supported as a child by this local authority. If you are assessed to be an adult, then another agency will support you. If you disagree with our decision, you may be able to challenge this decision with the help of a solicitor. Is there anything you would like to ask us before we begin?

 

Appropriate adults

 

A child or young person undergoing an age assessment must have the opportunity to have an appropriate adult present with them during the interviews. It is important that the role of the appropriate adult is clearly explained at the outset of the interviews, and it is

 

 

 

recommended that the same appropriate adult is used throughout the age assessment (unless the young person requests a change).

 

‘There were two social workers and an interpreter and a Refugee Council person in the room. To me ‘Refugee Council’ was a new word, I didn’t know what the Refugee Council was or what social workers do.’

 

(A young man who did not understand that the appropriate adult was there to support him during his age assessment.)

 

An appropriate adult should be independent of the local authority. Their role is to ensure the child or young person understands the questions posed to them, and that the assessing social workers conduct the age assessment in a child-friendly, clear and transparent manner. The appropriate adult may also support a child or young person to clarify questions posed by social workers, but cannot coach or answer questions on behalf of the child or young person. The appropriate adult may ask for breaks as appropriate, and may also take written notes during the assessment which may be shared with the assessing social workers or others at the child or young person’s request.

 

For more detailed information on the use of appropriate adults, refer to Chapter 3 and Appendix J.

 

Interpreters

 

Social workers should check thoroughly that the interpreter speaks the correct language and dialect and that the child or young person and the interpreter understand one another properly. You should make it clear that the interpreter’s role is to translate direct communications between social workers and the child or young person, not to provide advice to the child or young person or act on their behalf. The language used should be simple and sensitive. The same interpreter should be used during the interviews unless there is a clear reason not to do so.

 

Recording and sharing information

 

At the beginning of the interview, it is good practice to explain to the child or young person how the information provided in the interview will be recorded and how the findings of the assessment will be shared with the Home Office.

 

The assessing social workers should have a clear plan about recording information. Records do not have to be verbatim, but should be sufficiently comprehensive to include all significant information. You should record whether and how the young person has indicated they understand the purpose of the assessment, the interpreter and the role of the appropriate adult. You should raise issues concerning accuracy or consistency as soon as possible so that clarification can be sought and noted by you and the appropriate adult.

 

You should advise the child or young person that after the conclusion of the assessment, they will be given the outcome of the age assessment in writing, including information about how they may challenge the decision. If the child or young person and their solicitor make a request for a copy of the full age assessment, then the local authority should comply with this request. The Home Office, as per the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) / Home Office agreement, should be provided with the Model Information Sharing Proforma,13 which is a summary of the age assessment. It is not necessary to share the entire assessment directly with the Home Office. If the Home Office request a full copy of the age assessment, this should be done through the young person’s solicitor.

 

Timeliness

 

The process of assessing age can cause children and young people anxiety and stress, and can have an impact on their ability to access services, including education and health services. It is important that the age assessment be conducted in a timely manner and the decision provided to the child or young person as soon as possible. It is good practice to have interviews on different days, in order for the assessing social workers to have time to reflect on the answers provided by the child or young person and to clarify any inconsistencies prior to making a decision. Most age assessments should be completed within 28 days, however the timescale for assessment should be responsive to the needs of the child or young person. In cases where you have clear reasons to believe that an individual is a child (or indeed an adult), then a decision on age may be made more quickly (see also Appendix M).

 

Questioning the child or young person

 

Building trust and developing rapport at the beginning of the interview process is vital, and it will support the child or young person to speak freely and provide a more detailed narrative to inform the assessment. Simple, open-ended questions should generally be used, and you should ensure that questions are not confusing, repetitive or oppressive. You must take a child-friendly and sensitive approach to questioning, including checking that questions have been understood and offering breaks. The child or young person should be asked their age and date of birth, and given the opportunity to explain how they know their age and date of birth. The purpose of the questions is to develop a picture of the child or young person’s life and experiences, not to catch the child or young person in a “lie”. Social workers who have received training on Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) will find this helpful in interviewing children and young people in these circumstances. Current case law advises

 

  • The Model Information Sharing Proforma is available at: http://adcs.org.uk/safeguarding/article/age-assessment-information-sharing-for-unaccompanied-asylum-seeking-childre that social workers should use the Hillingdon and Croydon Guidelines, covering a range of issues about the child or young person’s background and development, to guide their assessment (see Appendix J).

 

‘They interviewed me for one hour, it was very scary for me, I was not used to being asked so many questions, I got very worried. I didn’t think it would happen in this way, in one hour, with so many questions. I didn’t think social services would ask me so much.’

 

(A young woman who was scared by the process, did not understand why she was asked these questions and what would happen to her next. She was asked later to say how she had been feeling before the assessment started, on a scale of one to ten, where one indicated feeling awful and ten indicated feeling great. She said ‘one’.)

 

An additional issue to consider is the gender of the assessing social workers, appropriate adult, and interpreters when discussing sensitive information, such as relationships or puberty. It is essential that interpreters and the child or young person understand the issue of confidentiality, and that information discussed in the age assessment will not be shared in the community.

 

For more detailed information about confidentiality, refer to Appendix K.

 

Other issues

 

Social workers must be alert to the potential vulnerabilities and possible exploitation, abuse, torture or trauma experienced by the child or young person. You should have a sound knowledge of child trafficking and exploitation risk factors, and must not hesitate to take appropriate safeguarding measures if the child or young person being age assessed is suspected of being a victim of trafficking (refer to Appendix B). You also need to be sensitive to possible mental health issues, learning difficulties, gender differences, cultural differences or life experiences which may impact on a child or young person’s ability or willingness to disclose personal information.

 

Information gathered during the age assessment process is highly relevant to assessing need. Assessors should keep this in mind in order to minimise any potential duplication of processes if a child or young person becomes ‘looked after’.

 

 

 

Chapter 5 – Making the decision

 

Checklist:

 

  • If you are minded to disagree with a child or young person’s claimed age, they must be given the opportunity to discuss further any factors leading you towards this opinion.

 

  • It is important to document each part of the process and the reasoning behind decisions and conclusions, including the views of others and any differences of opinion.

 

  • If new information arises or if your opinion changes as you get to know the child or young person better, you should review the assessment and consider if a further age assessment is needed.

 

Benefit of the doubt and presumption of age

 

Age assessments cannot be concluded with absolute certainty as there is not any current method that can determine age with 100% accuracy. The only exception to that is if there is definitive documentary evidence, such as a clear history of birth, school records, or other documentation which you accept as valid and authentic. Where definitive evidence is not available, the benefit of the doubt should be granted to children and young people presenting as such. In borderline cases, it may not be suitable to place older young people in foster placements with children.14

 

In accordance with the EU Directive on Trafficking in Human Beings and the Modern Slavery Act, 15 particular care should be given where there is any possibility that a child or young person has been trafficked, and in these cases the presenting child or young person should be presumed to be under 18 years of age.16

 

As age disputes may result in a legal challenge, it is important that you feel able to give evidence in the Court to justify your decision making. If you cannot meet that threshold, the

 

 

 

 

Individual should be treated as a child. If you have assessed the child or young person to be aged only one to two years different from their stated age, you must be prepared to explain how this decision was reached. For example, how does a 16 year old differ from a 15 year old?

 

Physical appearance and demeanour should not be the sole basis on which age is assessed. However, there may be rare occasions where the individual does not provide any substantial information that can assist you. If your assessment is based on appearance and demeanour, and you are not accepting their claim to be a child, then you must have no doubt that they are an adult and you must be prepared to state this in court if necessary.

 

Analysis

 

Once the interviews with the child or young person and relevant professionals have been completed and all other available information collated, you need to analyse the material holistically. As the information is pulled together, it can become easier to see themes and further lines of enquiry.

 

Many social workers find it helpful to start writing the information into the relevant assessment template after each interview, to see what questions may still need to be asked in subsequent interviews, either with the young person or other professionals. Many local authorities use a template based on the Hillingdon and Croydon guidelines.

 

Please refer to Appendix J for further information.

 

You should take some time to discuss your findings with your colleague who assisted in the interviews. It will have been challenging to document everything said, and one of you may have noticed or remembered something that the other did not – either a comment or an emotional reaction. It will be useful to talk through overall impressions and specific details to make sure the best possible decision is made given the information available.

 

In analysing the information, you should consider:

 

  • The statements of the child or young person

 

  • Country of origin information

 

  • The child or young person’s individual history and experiences, particularly any traumatic events

 

  • The child or young person’s cultural background, education level, gender, maturity, developmental stage and behaviours

 

  • The appropriately weighted views and opinions of other professionals (key workers or foster carers, educators, medical professionals, etc.). For example, how does this child or young person compare to and interact with their peers? The other professionals should be aware that their opinions are being documented, and may be presented in court.

 

  • Any medical evidence, e.g. psychological reports

 

  • Documentation presented. Are you able to verify the documents through channels that do not put the child or young person at risk? As a general rule, contacting

embassies is not a safe or appropriate option.17 It should be noted that if a child or young person’s document is assessed to be false, this does not necessarily mean that they are lying about their age.

 

  • Weight given to each piece of information collected. Not all information needs to be given the same weight, and the evidence will need to be considered on a case by case basis. For example, the views of a key worker who has significant experience working with adolescents from abroad and has worked with the young person on a daily basis may carry more weight than the views of a tutor who has one session with the young person and is unfamiliar with individuals from the particular region. You should avoid placing too much weight on physical appearance and demeanour.

 

Addressing gaps and inconsistencies

 

It is very important that children and young people are given the opportunity to address any relevant gaps or inconsistencies that you may find; as a result, further interviews may need to be scheduled. While forming your decision, you should continue to talk to the child or young person in an inquisitorial, not adversarial, manner.

 

You need to bear in mind developmental stages, the memory process, as well as the impact of trauma. Gaps, inconsistencies or lack of information do not always mean that a child or young person is not being truthful, and this should not be the starting point. Inquisitiveness about finding the right age is better for the child or young person than trying to catch someone in a “lie”. Consider also that many children and young people have been told by their families, smugglers or traffickers to tell particular stories about their life in order to protect others, which are not necessarily reliable indicators of their age.18 Children and young people being age assessed will also often not know yet who to trust, so may not reveal their entire situation at the assessment stage. Note that this is not dissimilar to other young people who are coming into care and may not be clear who to trust.

 

Clarifying information before reaching a decision

 

Before reaching a decision that contradicts the stated age, you should discuss with the child or young person the factors which have led you to form your opinion. The interpreter and the appropriate adult should be present for that session to help the child or young person ask any questions or clarify information. If the child or young person offers any further information or explanation, this should be considered as part of the assessment before the final decision is made. Once all the information is compiled, you should set out the factors that lead to your conclusion.

 

Chapter 6 – Conclusions and sharing results

 

 

Checklist:

 

  • Have you gathered and analysed all available information before reaching a decision?

 

  • If you are minded to disagree with the child or young person’s claimed age, have you given them an opportunity to discuss that view?

 

  • Have you clearly documented the reasons for your conclusion in the written report?

 

  • The child or young person should be given the outcome promptly and with support.

 

Conclusions

 

Only after a full analysis has been conducted, considering all the available information, should a conclusion be made. The conclusion should contain a detailed and holistic analysis, and explanation of how the decision was reached. In cases where the stated age has not been accepted, it will be particularly important to explain why, what information led to that conclusion, and why that information was given more weight than other information which aligned with the stated age. All of this information should be contained in the written report. Individuals should also be provided with a clear explanation of how they might be able to challenge any decision with which they do not agree, including the timeframes and the process to follow.

 

‘They asked me about my age. I was told to take off my hijab (the interpreter left the room), then put it back, and he said he doesn’t believe my age. This is the question I ask myself: on what basis did they dispute my age? By looking at my hair?’

 

(A young woman who did not understand why her age was not believed)

 

 

Sharing Results

 

Some general principles for sharing the results of an age assessment are as follows:

 

  • The child or young person being age assessed should be informed of the conclusion, face-to-face, at the earliest possible opportunity. This should be done in a manner which is in accordance with their assessed age and maturity and should also be provided in writing.

 

  • An interpreter of the appropriate dialect should be used to ensure clarity in delivering the decision, preferably the same one who has been present at previous interviews.

 

  • The child or young person should have an appropriate adult present at the meeting.
  • The child or young person will have already had an opportunity to comment at the decision-making stage, and should be given an opportunity to comment on the conclusion.

 

  • The child or young person should be advised both verbally and in writing that they may be able to challenge the decision and how to seek further advice regarding their assessment. In most cases, there will be a three month time limit to make an application for a judicial review.

 

  • You should keep all your hand written notes, and write up the outcome of the assessment regardless of the conclusion.19

 

  • It is recommended that the child or young person sign an acknowledgement (though not necessarily acceptance) of receiving the conclusion of the age assessment.

 

  • The child or young person should be given a full copy of the age assessment. This should be done within a reasonable amount of time upon completion of the assessment. Delay may seriously prejudice the child or young person’s ability to understand the decision, to know whether or not they can challenge it, and to access appropriate support. The child or young person should be made aware that this document contains their personal information and should be looked after very carefully.

 

The assessment belongs to the child or young person, so they should decide with whom the assessment is shared. If the child or young person and their solicitor make a request for a copy of the full age assessment, then the Local Authority should comply with that request. After the assessment has concluded, you should confirm with the Home Office that they are treating the child or young person at the assessed age.

 

If the Home Office has disputed the child or young person’s age, then they will need to know your decision promptly. This should be shared through the agreed ‘Model Information Sharing Pro Forma – Outcome of Age Assessment’.20 The Home Office should not be provided with the complete assessment, as per the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) / Home Office Joint Working Guidance21. It is very important that the Home Office know what age you have assessed the child or young person to be. In almost all circumstances the Home Office will accept your decision on age and your decision is likely to have significant consequences for the young person’s immigration status. Where the Home Office has concerns about the decision they will discuss these with you. A child or young

 

  • It is sufficient for clear scans of handwritten notes to be retained and stored electronically and these have been accepted by the courts. In these circumstances, it is not necessary to retain original paper copies of your handwritten notes.

 

  • Association of Directors of Children’s Services (2013), Model Information Sharing Proforma – Outcome of Age Assessment, available at: http://adcs.org.uk/safeguarding/article/age-assessment-information-sharing-for-unaccompanied-asylum-seeking-childre

 

  • ADCS and Home Office Age Assessment Joint Working Guidance: Available at: http://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/age_assessment_joint_working_guidance_april_2015.

 

 

 

Chapter 7 – What happens next?

 

 

Checklist:

 

  • If the individual is assessed to be a child, ensure all appropriate looked-after children protocols are undertaken.
  • If the individual is assessed to be an adult, ensure an appropriate transition to adult asylum services.
  • Remember that age is a crucial factor of identity for children and young people.

 

The outcome of the age assessment must be clearly communicated in a way which the child or young person (or adult) can understand, even if they do not agree with the decision (see previous chapter for information about sharing the decision).

 

If you have assessed the child or young person to be their claimed age, then their care and support under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 should continue in accordance with statutory guidance on the care of unaccompanied and trafficked children.22

 

If you have assessed the young person to be a child but of an age different to that claimed, then their care and support should continue as above, but additional work will be needed to explain to the child why you have reached this decision and to attempt to develop a trusting and supportive relationship between the child and your authority.

 

Children and young people have often said that even when they have been assessed to be a child, at their claimed age or at a different age, they found the process very difficult and upsetting and it had left them with feelings of distrust. The impact on the child or young person should be acknowledged and every effort should be made to try to develop the child or young person’s confidence in your local authority.

 

If you have assessed the young person to be an adult then you must arrange their safe transition to adult support, usually through Home Office Asylum Support (see Appendix E on accommodation/ placements).

 

 

30 | Age Assessment Guidance

 

Where further information becomes available

 

Age assessment is a difficult process for children and young people and for social workers undertaking the assessment; it should only be undertaken when there is significant reason to do so. However, there will be occasions when a further assessment is required. Other than on those occasions when reliable and authoritative information is available, an assessment will not allow the assessing social workers to know the age of a child or young person and will only allow them to come to a balanced and reasonable conclusion based on the information to hand and on benefit of the doubt. Other information may come to light at a later stage, for example, in the form of documentation or as professionals get to know the child or young person over time, which leads them to believe that the assessed age is wrong.

 

Where you believe that a significantly different conclusion might be reached and that the child or young person may be notably older or younger than initially assessed, then a new assessment should be undertaken. In most circumstances you will need to talk with the young person about this new information. There may be occasions when a re-assessment does not have to involve further questioning; for example, where new documentation has been provided which supports the child or young person’s claim and it can be relied upon, a decision on age can be made on that basis. Any new decision and the reasons for it must be clearly communicated with the child or young person, and if they are to remain in your service, then thought must be given to rebuilding trust and confidence. The Home Office must be advised of any new decision, and the child or young person will need to be issued with new immigration documents which reflect their assessed age.

 

Paperwork

 

All relevant paperwork including notes made during an assessment and other correspondence must be retained on the child or young person’s file. Even if the child or young person does not wish to challenge your decision, the information gathered for these purposes forms an important part of their file and should be available to them. If a child or young person challenges your decision on age, then your authority may be required to share all relevant information with the child or young person and their solicitor. In the case of a judicial review, it is likely that the assessing social workers will be called on to give evidence in court to explain their decision-making process, and other expert witnesses may also be called.

 

Please refer to Appendix N on legislation and case law for further informatio

 

 

Conclusion

 

Everyone involved in this process would like children assessed to be children and adults assessed to be adults. However, there will be times when, even after assessment, you have some doubt about the age of the person you are assessing; you cannot be expected to know the age of everyone you assess. In these circumstances you are advised to give the benefit of the doubt, and this is partly because of the different implications for children and adults in getting the decision wrong. Children in the UK are afforded extra levels of protection compared to adults both in terms of how they are cared for and in terms of how they are treated in the immigration system, and it is vitally important that children are able to access this protection.

 

Social workers are justifiably concerned about the implications of taking an unknown adult into their care, and potentially placing them with vulnerable children. Many social workers have limited options when it comes to placement, but any placement decision should be taken carefully, taking into account the needs of anyone already in the placement, of the carers, and of the child or young person about whom you may know little at the start. The risks of placing a relatively unknown child or young person are mitigated by the fact that they will be supervised, either closely or at least on a regular basis by those employed to care for and support them. Where it becomes apparent that the placement is unsuitable because your understanding of the child or young person’s age and/or needs changes, you are able to intervene and make the necessary changes, through further planning and assessment. However, if your initial assessment means that the young person is no longer in your care then you will have no opportunity to continue to assess and change your perception unless the young person is supported in challenging your decision. This can prove difficult and time consuming, and irreparable damage may have been done before any challenge is resolved. Safeguarding the welfare of all children is the primary responsibility of social workers and any decisions about age and placement must be made with this in mind. Similarly, section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places other professionals under a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

 

The dangers inherent in not taking a child into your care are multiple. With regard to their care, a child who is being treated as an adult will not receive the support given by local authorities which is deemed necessary for other children and includes having safe accommodation, the support of a social worker and a foster carer or keyworker/support worker, and support with all the other things a child needs, including access to education and health care.

 

With regard to the immigration system, there are many important safeguards in place for children in the UK. These include the way that an asylum application is processed, and the possible outcomes of that application. For example, an unaccompanied child will not be detained for immigration purposes, and if their asylum application is unsuccessful then they will not be removed to another country on their own unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that safe and adequate reception arrangements are in place. Therefore the child may receive a temporary grant of leave to ensure that they are protected in the short term. In contrast, a child who is treated as an adult may be detained and removed from the country without any planning or safeguards.

 

In many cases it will not be possible to know definitively the age of the child or young person with whom you are working. Where there is doubt about whether or not the young person is a child, the dangers inherent in treating a child as an adult are in almost all cases far greater than the dangers of taking a young adult into your care.