Social workers could face Children Act conflict over mooted age check

Children’s social workers might have to commission medical assessments when there is a dispute over the age of asylum-seeking young people under government reforms.

There is concern that a consultation paper, part of a government review of provision for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (Cost-cutting fears over proposals to reform care of child asylum seekers, 23 March), could be a forerunner to the measure.

The paper talks of the “pull” of UK benefits for under-18s and of the need to introduce comprehensive age assessments to reduce “expensive judicial challenges”.

Charities fear such a measure could compromise the independence of social workers, who have a duty towards children’s welfare, by putting them at the centre of the process.

Local authority children’s services currently conduct largely holistic age assessments of asylum seekers who claim they are under 18. Medical assessments, often involving x-rays and dental checks, are mainly carried out at the request of asylum seekers who want to prove they are under 18. 

Paediatricians say they can only judge the age of minors to the nearest two years either way, while Immigration and Nationality Directorate guidance states asylum claimants should be given the benefit of the doubt unless their appearance strongly suggests they are 18 or over. 

Syd Bolton, of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said medical assessments for non-clinical purposes would pose a series of ethical questions, and could breach a European directive on radiological intervention if they became compulsory.

Social workers contracted by the National Asylum Support Service via their local authority to assess and support minors could also face a conflict with their duties to children under the Children Act 1989, he added.

The Home Office is now concluding the first stage of the review, which is looking at dispersing children placed in London and the south east of England to designated authorities across the country.

The department held the last of 11 invitation-only seminars yesterday (Wednesday).

Some children’s organisations have expressed alarm at the “pre-determined outcomes” indicated by the language of the initial consultation paper.

Lisa Nandy, chair of the Refugee Children’s Consortium, which represents 12 major charities, said: “At first it was billed as a review of support services, but it now seems far wider. It is very important to get this right.”


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