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.

Roxanne Nanton is an Age Dispute Advisor at the Refugee Council. Here she talks about her work supporting young people who have their ages disputed and acting as Appropriate Adult in age assessments. One of the young people’s guides we’ll be launching on Wednesday 9th of September is for Appropriate Adults.

The Refugee Council Age Dispute Project is the only one of its kind. We provide support and advice to unaccompanied young people who are disputing an age assessment of 18 or over by the Home Office and/or Social Services.

We only take on cases where we believe the young person is aged under 18. We gather as much information as we can about the young person and meet with them to see whether we are able to take on their case.

We work across the country, liaising with young people and stakeholders wherever they are. Where possible, we work with local authorities and other agencies to resolve a young person’s case without recourse to legal representation. Where this is not possible, we work with specialised solicitors and barristers to ensure that the young person has appropriate legal advice and representation.

As an Adviser on the project, I witness the immense distress and disruption that age disputes have on the lives of unaccompanied young people. The harsh journeys that they endure to reach the UK undoubtedly take a toll on their physical appearance; the lack of food, sleep, hygiene, shelter, as well as physical and emotional abuse can affect the way they present themselves on arrival. Furthermore, cultural differences, reasons for having left their home country and the anguish of being separated from family are also likely to play a part in their overall demeanour.

For most unaccompanied children who have their age disputed, they must undergo a local authority ‘Merton Compliant’ age assessment. This usually takes several months, but can even take years if the assessment is found to be unlawful and the local authority is required to complete a new assessment. This prolonged uncertainty has a huge impact on the mental health of these young people as they often feel that they cannot progress in life until they receive a decision on their age. Furthermore, their asylum case has to be put on hold until their age has been determined which creates an additional sense of limbo.

As such, an age assessment should be treated as being of significant importance, as the decision will have a substantial impact on the young person’s future.

I have attended age assessments as the appropriate adult on many occasions and have witnessed a variety of approaches by different local authorities. As most young people are nervous before an age assessment I often brief them in advance and highlight the kind of questions that they will be asked. I explain my role to them as an appropriate adult so they understand why I am there with them. I always take notes during the assessment on behalf of the young person, as they may wish to use them to challenge the age assessment decision. I remind the young person to be as consistent and clear as possible about their past and if they do not know the answer to a question to simply reply ‘I don’t know’ instead of guessing or inventing an answer.

As the appropriate adult, if there are any questions asked that I consider irrelevant or too intrusive, I will alert the social workers and if there are any issues with a question being understood I will offer to rephrase it in a way I think the child might better understand. If there are any interpreting issues, these must be flagged to the social workers as early as possible. Many young people want the session to be over as quickly as possible but I recommend they take breaks and if I notice them becoming tired or starting to lose focus I will ask for the assessment to be rescheduled to another day.

If a young person is told that the age they claim to be is incorrect they are likely to feel disappointed, angry and upset. I will remind the young person that they have up to three months to challenge the decision and that they are entitled to seek advice from a public law solicitor.

If any young person or professional would like further information on the role of the appropriate adult, please see the advice sheet in this guide.