Category Archives: Merton Compliant

Can I assess who is a child still?

Its an interesting time working with children.  I have recently put myself forward for a research project and as it has to be relevant to my work place and my employers.  I have decided to look at the thorny subject of age assessments.

Probably a bad idea when so much research has already been done around this firstly by Heaven Crawly in 2007 with ‘when is a child not a child?‘ and now more recently by the Children Society with ‘I don’t feel human’,   Yet even with this mistakes are still being made about age assessments and vulnerable young people not receiving the right support or help.

The answer is sadly not easy and with no matter how much good will is made with the assessments that age determination on its own is going to be hard.  Furthermore, there is the objective of the agents bringing the young people into the country.  Especially when considering child sexual exploitation and the advantage of having young girls or boys act older to get past the assessments in order for them to disappear.  There is also the dilemma around the benefits that are provided to young people if they are under the age of 18, meaning the credibility of a few impact on the outcomes for so many, when older young people who may still be vulnerable in themselves have argued to be under 18.

Despite this, looking further still into the assessment process I have had to look at definitions of childhood.  One argument that has been consistent in all research is that young people from poorer economic climates may present as being older looking.  And their demeanour presenting as older because what advantages are there in being a child.

This amuses me because actually the research is right, when completing an assessment of age it is essential to understand what that young person defines as childhood? what have they had to do to grow up and survive? And what are our comparisons in the UK? I guess the bit that makes me chuckle was observing an independent advocate pulling a toy train out for a 17 year old young man to play with.  It is clear that we can not make comparisons so should we force all aspects of what we think is childhood onto someone who has already had to grow up?

But then I wondered is this right, in the UK right now there are more and more young people experiencing poverty, abuse and neglect.  Growing up in poor conditions and failing to engage with education and employment due to their basic need of survival.  And also is the young people making it to the UK the most vulnerable or the ones who have had the money to make the journey originally.  We are now hearing of stories of tragic losses of young people in Afghanistan freezing to death in make shift illegal camps.

But again it is not easy, what is right and wrong? are our perceptions of childhood changing and are we able to understand what childhood is? Which, means spending more time researching these subjects but also more time working on for us in social work that have to undertake these complex tasks is our understanding of assessments.

Alone this is a massive subject with many different theories and data which could provide the wrong cue to through the person or people out who are completing the assessment.  Experience is essential, however can be less helpful in this situation of completing age assessments.  The reason for this is the time allowed to complete the assessment and fully analyse the information given.  One reason for this is the information shared by the young person you are assessing.  When understanding the experiences that a separated child may have experienced in travelling to the UK it is important to understand the difficulties that they may experience and then why they may not trust us as professionals.

For me this subject remains immensely interesting and important at so many levels, firstly to safeguard separated children but also in improving the understanding of social worker with all children that are vulnerable and continuing to improve the assessment process.

Age Assessments

Have you ever lied about your age to achieve something you would never be able to get legally and or maybe because you are not happy with your age.  For me I can answer yes to both, at 17 years of age I would often go out with friends and pretended to be 18 to get served (I would not promote this now of course).  Also with my current age I could happily be a few years younger!


However, for some young people age is an important issue especially for claiming asylum.  Age assessments have always been a thorny subject for both Local Authority’s and for young people.  Understandably so, with the importance of the age determining the level of support that the individual will receive and also where they might live. 


Working in a Looked After Children’s team I have started working again with young unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children.  From this I have developed an interest in the age assessment process.  I have 13 years of experience working with Teenagers, and feel confident in understanding behaviours, attitudes, and other aspects that allow me to develop positive relationships. 


So what do you need to know to complete an age assessment? Because we know that we can not just go by looks.  However, looks is the biggest area of contention with all age assessments.  It is also the most frequent argument I hear “He looks at least 20” or “he can only be 14!” 


Thankfully there has been guidance created from a legal challenge on an age assessment.  Meaning that all age assessments need to be Merton Compliant from the Queen on the application of B v the London Borough of Merton.  As there is no guidance set out in the Children Acts this sets out guidance on how age assessments should be completed. 

But my interest in age assessments goes further, developed from a very long conversation with an independent Social Worker recently employed to complete an independent age assessment, for our team after a challenge to our assessment.  At present I do not undertake these assessments, although I have been asked too as the internal policies change due to the number of recent challenges to age assessments.  So interested I asked what training he had to help with the assessment.  His reply “I have not had any! there is none!” I learned that his experience has developed from being in my position and the conversations and research he has completed through his practise.  However, this has not filled me with confidence when I learnt further the detail and level he probes to.  

His knowledge now includes the education systems in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.  Perhaps more impressive is a working understanding of the Koran and the various practises of this belief in these different cultures.  The spelling of town names, Services provided in these countries, Family traditions, Working attitudes, Whether there is National Service and the age that this comes in force.

Why is this important? it all plays a part in developing a picture from which can be tested to accurately create a picture of the age for the young person.  One that can comply with the Merton guidance and stand up in Court as being fair and accurate.

I also learnt that it is important who completes the age assessment.  It has been a reoccurring theme that if there has been a complaint about an age assessment one issue has been made about the person completing it.  Another key factor is understanding the language that is spoken and also the different dialects that may impact on the translation.

I guess the easiest answer is research, research and more research and this is what I will be doing from now on.