Expecting only social workers to do age assessments is setting them up to fail

Karen Goodman, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, argues asylum age assessments require input from a variety of agencies

by Karen Goodman

Richard Ross says social workers “should derive confidence and support for their practice” from Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ (ADCS) Age Assessment Guidance, but it is the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) view that social workers should not be asked to undertake this task unilaterally.

BASW’s policy, ethics and human rights committee has consistently challenged the single-agency approach taken in the ADCS guidance. The only ethical way forward is for all professionals to pool their knowledge and recognise they can only approximate, rather than assess, age.

The ADCS guidance is the result of two years of work and a consultation process undertaken by a Department for Education and Home Office led multi-agency strategic group established with a clear brief to produce multi-agency guidance.


But rather than the multi-agency approach specified in the original brief, the guidance was published in October 2015 as a task specifically for social workers. What happened to the medical, dental, education or any other professions who work with young asylum seekers and migrants?

The awkward but very real truth is determining age on a single agency basis within 24 hours cannot be done, and it is BASW’s view it is entirely wrong to place this burden on social workers alone. After all, social workers could face legal challenge in age-disputed cases and would have to account for decisions taken via an assessment process that is flawed from the outset.

This is not assessment but guesswork, and BASW has detailed its objections in a position statement.

Set up to fail

History and context is essential to understand how and why we have reached this position where the ADCS may be seen to be setting up the frontline social worker to fail.

Before I joined BASW, I spent almost two decades in the sector as a practitioner and manager of the social work services in a number of locations including Hillingdon and Kent. My services were expected to know if the person was a child entitled to children’s services and input a date of birth as a data necessity. In the early 1990s, I gathered a group of key frontline staff and drafted guidance, which essentially became the Merton judgment.

I would like to turn back the clock and firmly decline to set social workers up to do this work as a single agency. Rather than write, as I did at the time, that it is “beneficial to obtain the views of other professionals”, I would write that it is crucial to do so, and without a collective view the outcome is meaningless and flawed.

No ‘meaningful accuracy’

There are sound reasons why the numerous medical practitioners are not allowed by their professional bodies to attribute a date of birth; it’s not possible to do so with any meaningful accuracy. The issue has become a battle between the lawyers with case law complexity, which has little to do with social work practice and baffles practitioners, and, quite sensibly, the medical royal colleges have with a single voice declined to allow their members to participate in this flawed process.

We only have to turn to the definitive works of the first children’s commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, and the seminal research by Professor Heaven Crawley, When is a Child Not a Child?, to find the answers. Assessment, social, medical or other, gathers information on maturity and not age. To attribute a date of birth, the matter must be addressed by a multi-professional process.

The ADCS guidance is once again setting up social workers to fail. It contains no information on how you can know when a person was born beyond verified accurate documentation or by hearing from and believing those who were present at the birth. BASW will continue to campaign for joint work and multi-agency procedures which reflects good practice and values and respects human rights.

Karen Goodman is a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers.


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