“Long-awaited” guidance for social workers carrying out age assessment interviews with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people has been published.
The new practice guidance, released by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says social workers should ask whether age assessment interviews are completely required or if they could be unnecessarily distressing in the circumstances.
Paul Greenhalgh, chair of the ADCS Asylum Taskforce, said the guidance “will enable social workers to feel more confident and supported in this difficult task”. Good practice in age assessments had largely been established through case law until now, the ADCS said.
The guidance states that age assessments should not be carried out for every unaccompanied child or young person approaching local authorities for support, but should be used to ensure that appropriate services are offered to them.
To be able to assess the needs of a child, social workers “must be satisfied that the individual is a child”, but young people “should not be subjected to multiple assessments for administrative purposes only”.
Statutory government guidance states that age assessments should only be carried out where there is “significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child”.
The practice guidance says this phrase 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.”
Where an age assessment is unavoidable – for example, if the Home Office requests an assessment before it will treat the young person as a child in the immigration process – the guidance says “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.”
The guidance says there will be “some adults [who] do claim to be children”, and “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.”
However, it adds, “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.”
Benefit of the doubt
The guidance also addresses the dilemma faced by social workers when they are unable to state with certainty if a person being assessed is a child or adult. “You cannot be expected to know the age of everyone you assess,” it states. “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.”
The guidance reminds social workers of the need to consider if children have been trafficked, if they have physical, mental or emotional health difficulties, or learning difficulties, and if their experiences in their country of origin or during their journey to the UK could have an impact on their ability to respond fully to questions.
It also covers issues such as finding suitable accommodation, planning, preparing for, and conducting an age assessment interview, and reminds managers that they must allocate two qualified social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council to undertake an age assessment.
Increase in applications
There were 2,168 asylum applications made by unaccompanied children in the year to June 2015, up 46% on the previous 12 months. The age of more than 400 of these was disputed and 488 had an age assessment. The numbers of people entering Europe and the UK after crossing the Mediterranean this year could lead to an increase in these figures.
Kamena Dorling, head of policy and programmes at Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC), said the guidance was “long awaited and badly needed”.
“For many years, CLCC has worked with children who have been assessed to be adults or to be older than they actually are,” she said. “Each year, at least one quarter of all unaccompanied children claiming asylum in the UK have their ages disputed, because they arrive with no documents, or with false papers.
Children who arrive alone in the UK are regularly disbelieved about how old they are and can spend many years without access to education or appropriate support, or end up in unsupervised accommodation with adults or even in adult immigration detention centres or prisons.
“The only way to challenge this treatment is to pursue costly and protracted legal proceedings.
“The number of children arriving alone in the UK is increasing, and throwing into sharp relief some of the weaknesses in the system for children seeking asylum. There have been frequent calls for guidance to enable social workers to undertake the specialist task of age assessments but until now practice has been largely established through case law following legal challenges. This new guidance is therefore an important step in improving the treatment of children in need of protection. It will help social workers to conduct holistic assessments and to work with all relevant professionals and carers to respond to the needs of this particular group of children in need.”
As well as the ADCS, the Age Assessment Strategic Oversight Group – which developed the guidance – includes representatives from the Home Office, Department for Education, Department of Health, and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England.
Young people with experience of age assessments were also consulted during preparation of the guidance, which is intended to be used alongside the ADCS and Home Office Age Assessment Joint Working Guidance, and the Information Sharing Proforma.