This blog post is part of a series leading up to our Age Assessment Guides online launch event on September 9th 2020 for the Young People’s Guides to Age Assessments. The guides will be launched on our website, and at 5pm we’ll live stream a discussion on our Youtube and Facebook page. Please see this post for full details.

In this guest blog, practitioners at The Children’s Society describe their experiences supporting young people through the age assessments process, and how our guide will be useful.

Unaccompanied young people come to the UK seeking safety and an opportunity to continue their lives. Having the right support immediately upon arrival is crucial to their well-being and their ability to settle in. However, unexpected processes like age assessments can be a shocking and daunting experience at a time when young people are already struggling. Having guidance around the impact of age assessments will be effective with the support young people receive.

I was asked to support a young person as an appropriate adult during his age assessment two days before it was due to be done. I agreed to it given the importance of having someone there for support. I rang the young person and explained my role, why the assessment was being done and what it would mean for him. At the appointment, I quickly discovered that this was the second stage of the age assessment and that there was no independent support for him at the first stage. The interpreter was different to the one used during the first stage and was of different dialect and the initial social worker was unable to attend this stage of the assessment. This young person now had three new professionals around him and his allocated social worker had only been supporting him for just over a month.

The young person became anxious by the changes and although he understood why the assessment was being made, he questioned why he was not informed of the process at the initial stage. This young person would have benefited from having a consistent independent adult supporting him from the beginning.

We’ve supported young people who have had to go through court to challenge decisions about their age. Young people who are thought to be over 18 are housed with adults and are not entitled to the same support as children. This has led to some young people being housed in National Asylum support Service (NASS) accommodation with adults much older than them or sharing rooms with strangers.

Being left without support leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Some young people have been homeless, and have experienced abuse. The length of time it has taken to go through judicial review has compounded the trauma that young people experience – often leading to further traumatic  events. Going to court to prove your age is a horrible experience, young people are forced to recount their traumatic experiences, such as loss of family, in front of a judge.

Where we have successfully supported young people to challenge their age assessments, and they are taken back into care, it is by the same local authority that disputed their age, and they are often placed back in accommodation and with the same support workers and social workers who didn’t believe them to begin with. This has, for some young people, led to real difficulty trusting the adults whose role it is to take care of them. One young person I supported recently was having problems with his housemates, but he was really scared about making a complaint or challenging any decision by social services, in case he was kicked out again, like he had been when he arrived.

One young person was referred to us for help in an age assessment about two years ago. When I went to meet him prior to the age assessment, he hadn’t had much contact with his social worker and he hadn’t really been adequately told what an age assessment was. I acted as his appropriate adult throughout the process. He was initially assessed as over 18 and the assessment was clearly unlawful, as it was only conducted by one social worker. The local authority also failed to follow processes like considering the young person’s responses to the findings and allowing him opportunities to explain discrepancies. I managed to get the local authority to reassess with the help of a solicitor – which happened pretty quickly. The young person was reassessed by two social workers and was believed about his age. This young person has thrived so much more easily than others who we have worked with. Having a quick resolution to his age dispute meant he was adequately supported – he didn’t experience the uncertainties and precariousness of going into NASS, being dispersed, being moved, etc. His asylum case was also resolved more quickly. I think outcomes could have been improved further with a guardian – to explain earlier on in the process what the age assessment was about, how it would be conducted, what it meant.  A guardian is an independent person who will speak up for the young person, explain their rights and entitlements through the asylum process and support them consistently for all their needs and requirements until the young person is independent or does not need support.

However, the support some young people have received through the age assessment process has benefitted young people. I supported a young female at all three stages of her assessment as an appropriate adult through my role of Children’s Rights Advocate. The foster carer and social workers worked collaboratively with me, and together we were able to analyse signs of trafficking as the young person felt relaxed and trusted the support she was getting. The young person later joined a youth group to gain further support and meet other young people and attended college. This is a great example of how a professional, such as a guardian, can build a relationship to support young people and recognise the risks they face.

The guide [our Age Assessments Guide, launching on 09/09/20] clarifies what the process is for the young person and makes it clear for other professionals the importance of supporting young people through a challenging time when they have to juggle other events in their life. It is vital this guide is followed to ensure a fair process and start of new life and eliminates any further impacts for young people or legal challenges.

These young people were supported by The Children’s Society but not everyone gets the support they need. A group of young people, the Youth-led Commission on Separated Children (YLCSC), are leading a campaign asking the Government to provide legal guardians to all separated and unaccompanied children upon arrival in England and Wales. To learn more about the campaign and the role of guardians, please watch their documentary, Guardians.

Practitioners, The Children’s Society.