Combine social work with scientific methods to boost reliability of age checks, experts advise government

Committee finds social work asylum age checks are 'untested', but says methods testing development of teeth and bones are not precise and young people's refusal to consent should be respected

Young asylum seeker
Picture posed by model (photo: pixelrain/Adobe Stock)

Social work assessments of unaccompanied asylum seekers’ age should be combined with scientific methods to reduce the risks of claimants being wrongly found to be children or adults.

That was the verdict from government advisers, in a report last week advising ministers on how to introduce their controversial plans, opposed by campaigners, to introduce of scientific methods where there are doubts over claimants’ age.

Though previously prohibited, the Home Office now has the power to bring them in through regulations under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, supplementing the current approach of social workers carrying so-called Merton-compliant age assessments.

Any method can only be introduced following expert advice, the act specifies, for which purpose the Home Office has created an Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee (AESAC), which is currently sitting on an interim basis.

Social work assessments questioned

In a report designed to advise the Home Office on methods that could be introduced within the next 12-18 months, the interim committee raised concerns about the current reliance on “the expertise and subjective opinions of social workers”.

It said the Merton-compliant approach had not been tested as to its accuracy or repeatability, was not uniformly applied and could be lengthy, stressful for the young person and costly for the relevant council, while several assessments were challenged, resulting in further cost and delay.

The report added: “Cases have shown that incorrect decisions have been made, sometimes with catastrophic consequences, when vulnerable children are inadvertently placed at risk of harm either from adults who are incorrectly assessed as children or when children are incorrectly placed into adult facilities.”

The interim committee said that biological methods had been “tested repeatedly in the adversarial environment of the criminal courts” and said it expected their use “would enhance confidence in the Merton process”.

It proposed using combinations of x-rays of wisdom teeth and hand and wrist bones and MRI scans of the knee and collar bones.

No method infallible

However, it stressed that no method was infallible and that these methods could provide a range of ages for the young person, based on development, rather than a single definitive age.

It concluded that its proposed methods, in combination, should be used to assess the relative probability of social workers’ assessment of age as against the age the young person says they are, to determine which was more likely.

Under the Nationality and Borders Act, scientific methods can only be used with the consent of the young person or, where they lack capacity to do so, a specified person on their behalf. However, where there is a refusal to consent without “reasonable grounds”, the decision maker must take such a refusal as damaging to the person’s credibility.

Concerns over consent

However, the committee, whose members include Kent council director of children’s services Sarah Hammond, as well as medical experts, implicitly raised questions about this approach, saying “no automatic assumptions or consequences should result from refusal to consent”.

It said claimants’ may have witnessed or experienced trauma from their homeland government and may view authority with suspicion as a result.

“If the applicant decides not to undertake biological age assessment without any justification for the refusal, the application can continue utilising the existing Merton-compliant process,” it added.

In response to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said the introduction of scientific methods would “bring a more consistent and robust approach to age assessments and help prevent asylum-seeking adults from claiming to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults – in turn helping prevent safeguarding risks and stopping abuse of the system”.

They added: “We welcome the report from the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee and will now consider the recommendations – further details will be set out in due course.”

Social work assessments are ‘specialist work’

For the Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Steve Crocker said: “Age assessments aren’t an exact science and the report from the scientific advisory committee on the use of biological methods to assist this process outlines the complexities in the process.

“Social work-led age assessments are specialist work and the committee notes that use of medical or biological methods are no panacea, instead they can be used in times of uncertainty or dispute. ADCS is clear that any decisions made must be driven by a child-centric approach and are timely.”

Charities welcomed the report’s conclusions that scientific methods could not be used in isolation and that young people often had good reasons to refuse to consent.

Risks surround ‘unethical’ methods

Children and Families Across Borders, which supports young asylum seekers through its family reunification service, said it saw scientific methods as “unethical” and that they raised grave concerns about the impact on both the physical and mental health of the child

“We welcome AESAC’s conclusions that scientific age assessments are not a stand-alone solution and that they recognise the risks that accompany these methods and that they should be used with extreme care and caution,” said chief executive Carolyn Housman. “As the report recognises, child asylum seekers may have many reasons to withhold consent for biological age assessments which are not linked to a desire to conceal their age.”

This was echoed by Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon, who added: “We welcome the interim committee’s confirmation that scientific age assessments are not a stand-alone solution, that they are not risk-free, and that they should be used with extreme caution alongside other methods rather than on their own.”

Informed consent ‘difficult to obtain’

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said it continued to hold “ethical concerns about the use of biological assessment methods which subject a child or young person to medical investigations for anything other than a clinical need”.

It added: “The report also emphasises the need for informed consent for all biological age assessment age investigations which, by definition, must be free from duress. RCPCH is concerned that such informed consent is, in reality, difficult to obtain in the circumstances that these young people face. This is reflected in the report’s recommendation that ‘no automatic assumptions or consequences should result from refusal from consent.’”

For Coram Children’s Legal Centre, legal and policy manager Stewart MacLachlan said the report recognised “the significant lack of accuracy in scientific methods of assessing age, the lack of data available to provide accuracy, and the ethical concerns around using such methods”.

He added: “The committee also highlighted the amount of work that would need to be done in relation to improving such assessments, the difficulties with consenting to procedures with no medical benefit, and the issue of further pressure and cost being put on the NHS, particularly for MRI scans…”Shoe-horning flawed methods into the struggling wider system which will be costly, cause further delays and put children at risk is unacceptable, particularly while still not providing accuracy in the determination of age.”

Though the British Association of Social Workers was unable to comment on the report, its view was cited in a parliamentary debate on the issue last week by SNP MP Angela Crawley.

She said BASW had “stated that there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age”.

“Pushing scientific methods upon age-disputed young people is incredibly insensitive. It ignores the trauma they have been through and the atrocities they have seen.”


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