This is part 2 of our blog series on age assessment, written by our JustRight intern Niamh Grahame. To read part 1, click here.
As we covered in part 1, there is no single reliable method for carrying out an age assessment, making it a complicated and controversial process. Across the European Union there is a lack of consensus about the most effective way to assess a young person’s age. The majority of European states opt for some type of medical assessment. However, in the UK non-medical assessments, which are less physically invasive and facilitate the participation of the claimant in the process, are favoured.
For various reasons, this task falls to social workers within local authorities. This tends to be because they are child-specialists with experience in cognitive and behavioural development; they are trained to work in a child-centred and trauma-informed way; and they are experienced in conducting various assessments, including community care and needs assessments.
What to do?
So how exactly can this psycho-social assessment be done? Last year the Scottish Government and a range of local authorities and third sector agencies, including JustRight Scotland and the Scottish Guardianship Service, worked together to produce the Age Assessment Practice Guidance for Scotland. This is designed to assist local authorities in carrying out these challenging assessments. Local authorities are free to determine their own approach however the Guidance includes all the relevant legal and non-legal considerations and principles which should be taken into account. It sets out best practice for every stage of an age assessment.
Firstly, and critically, an age assessment should only be carried out where absolutely necessary – where there is doubt as to whether the young person is an adult or a child. It should not be conducted as a matter of routine. This means that on initial presentation at, say, a police station where an individual is (i) obviously older than 18 or (ii) obviously a child, an age assessment is not required. Only in borderline cases should an age assessment take place. The decision whether or not to conduct an age assessment is left to the professional discretion of the local authority. If it is decided that an assessment is necessary, it should not take place at the police station; the young person’s stated age should be presumed and they should be accommodated until the end of the age assessment process.
Preparing to Assess
If it is decided that an age assessment is necessary, there are a number of preparatory steps. Throughout the assessment a holistic and child-centred approach should be adopted. The assessment should be carried out by two local authority workers. At least one of these workers should be a qualified social worker but both must have the relevant knowledge and experience to carry out a competent assessment. At least two interviews should be conducted and these interviews should be several days apart, with the whole assessment aiming to be completed within 28 days if possible.
As well as two local authority workers, best practice indicates that an appropriate adult should also be present in order to observe the interviews, ensure the young person understands the process and that they have the opportunity to respond to queries. This person must be independent and approved by the local authority, the young person and their legal representation. Provided the young person does not waive this right, the appropriate adult should be present at all interviews. In addition, prior to conducting the assessment, the young person should be made aware of their right to legal representation and arrangements should be made for an interpreter to be present if necessary.
It is very rare that the young person will have reliable documentation to assist with the age assessment. As such, the young person themselves is generally the primary source of information. In order to minimise unnecessary and invasive questioning and maximise the use of interview time, background research into the young person’s country and culture of origin should be carried out prior to the interviews. Regard should be had to the young person’s vulnerability and to the possibility that they may not wish to participate fully in the assessment.
During the interviews the social workers should try to establish the narrative of the young person’s life and any inconsistencies or gaps should be put to the young person. The assessment should be holistic and multi-agency, taking into account the views of health professionals, teachers, carers or anyone else with relevant knowledge of the young person. It is recommended that these contributions should be in writing. The principle of the benefit of the doubt should be applied when evaluating all the evidence. Therefore, if there is any doubt about their age after the interview and information gathering process, the young person should be presumed to be under 18.
Prior to completing the report, the findings of the assessment should be discussed with the young person to give them the opportunity to comment. The result of the assessment dictates the type of support they will receive from that point onwards. Importantly, if any new information comes to light that could have an impact on the decision, a further assessment should be carried out.
Overall, the local authority age assessment process in Scotland aims to be child-centred and to take into account the wider needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seeking young people. However, even if the Guidance is applied assessing age remains a challenging process. It is impossible to eliminate factors such as unknown dates of birth, the ‘aging’ effect traumatic experiences can have and instances where different ages are given to authorities previously or false identity documents are used. As a result, the principle of the benefit of the doubt becomes extremely important. Unfortunately no assessment is likely to be concluded with absolute certainty; the key is to follow the process and ensure a defensible decision is arrived at.
Further more information or second-tier advice on age assessments, please feel free to get in touch with our solicitors in the Scottish Refugee & Migrant Centre.