The case against “scientific age assessments”

We know that the current age assessment processes aren’t perfect. Every year children are incorrectly classed as adults due to the complexities involved in assessing a young person’s age. There is no accurate way of knowing, but the immediate and long-term impacts of this on children who are assessed as adults can be devastating. They can cost lives. 

When the Home Secretary makes the claim that ‘in two thirds of age dispute cases found individuals to be adults’ it sounds definitive, but this doesn’t give the full picture. It doesn’t show for example the number of children found to be, but falsely identified as adults, through the courts or otherwise. It doesn’t reflect the years that children often have to fight to have their age properly registered, or those that may turn 18 and become adults during this period. It doesn’t reflect the number of children who claim to be older, and are often accepted as such; simply because they have been misled by traffickers into thinking that as adults, they will be treated better in the asylum system.

All of this could be seen as pointing in the direction of a need for better age assessment processes. Processes which arguably should be less inherently subjective, such as the current ‘Merton Compliant’ tool that’s used by local authorities when assessing a young person’s age (ie. taking into account the different affects culture, race, or even just recognising the trauma which child asylum seekers have been through and the impact this may have on their physical and mental appearance). Replacing this with “Scientific age assessments”, currently being explored by the government, may not however be the answer that everyone is looking for.

First and foremost, a young person’s age cannot be assessed accurately in this way. Scientific assessments, such as x-rays, are only accurate to within plus or minus two years at best. More than likely it’s children who  are older teenagers that are most affected; where plus two years can mean the difference between receiving the appropriate support they need, and their  legally guaranteed rights and protections under children’s law upheld  against having to live with, and expected to manage in the same way as adults, with them  being placed in adult facilities. 

This isn’t just a theoretical concept. The use of scientific age assessments (in their various forms) in some other countries is one of a few arguments which has been put forward to support their use in the UK. What that argument fails to acknowledge is that the use of them elsewhere has led to criticism over not only the inaccuracy of the tests, but also the ethics of employing them in the first instance.

“The application of third molar dental radiographs is methodologically flawed and should not be employed as a determinant of chronological age. Furthermore, the use of such tests without obtaining informed consent from either the youth or an objective advocate is unethical.”

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) further warned in its 2013 report that there was “no method which could identify the exact age of the individual”

We aren’t just talking about the risks to the children who are incorrectly classed as adults though. We’re talking about the risks to all children who are made to go through such invasive tests in order to prove/disprove their credibility, undermining the very fabric of statutory children’s law in the UK whereby the welfare of the child is paramount. 

By putting children through these tests, there is also a significant risk of exacerbating the trauma which they have already faced. Imagine how you would feel. Scared, alone, in a country you don’t know, and you are essentially told that you have to undergo medical testing, testing you don’t understand, or you may be sent back to the very place you have fought so hard to escape. The impact on a child’s mental health is incalculable. Not to mention the practical abandonment of the principle of “informed consent” which is so important to all of us.

Then there are the possible physical implications. The British Dental Association, for example, in its evidence on this very issue warned that exposing “children to radiation when there is no medical benefit is simply wrong”

What about the impact on overall child protection frameworks though? The proposals for how these tests may be administered would potentially see the Home Office overriding local authority age determinations. This means taking children out of the scope of Children’s Services social workers who may have already assessessed them in accordance with statutory guidance, and allowing  their futures, their needs, to be in the hands of policy on immigration rather than child protection. This undermines the essential principles of child protection frameworks in the UK.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek to improve on the status quo, and improve age assessments for the better. Above all else, they must ensure that children arriving in this country, children separated from their families, carers and loved ones, are protected and treated with dignity. We need them to ensure that children are not wrongly treated as adults though, and that age determinations do not prevent children from accessing the vital services that they need. That children and young people aren’t put under increased trauma. That they aren’t put at more risk. The proposals for “scientific age assessments”, as they stand, not only fail to support children in this way,, they worryingly appear to actively do the complete opposite.

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