Age assessment: practice guidance

This document provides practice guidance for social workers and their managers involved in undertaking age assessments in Scotland.

4. Additional Issues and Potential Vulnerabilities

This section is designed to help social workers think about the wider issues which may impact on the age assessment process and which they need to account for as well as the practical issues which need to be addressed before an age assessment takes place.

Key questions for practice:

  • Is it possible that the young person has been trafficked or experienced another form of abuse? If so, child protection procedures should be followed.
  • How do I take a trauma informed approach to age assessment?
  • Has appropriate accommodation been put in place for the young person for the duration of the assessment?
  • Are there specific communication needs?
  • Are there specific health needs eg. pregnancy?
  • Does the young person have any other additional needs beyond being unaccompanied eg. learning disability and are there arrangements in place to take account of these during the assessment?
  • Are there any other issues which may impact on the young person's ability to participate fully in the assessment and which need to be taken account of?
  • What is the young person's immigration status?
  • Are additional supports required?

Child protection

Workers should be mindful that there is research as early as 2001 which points to the involvement of traffickers in a significant minority of child asylum cases [2] . More recently, surveys have indicated the risks to women and children travelling across countries to seek asylum [3] . Child trafficking is child abuse and local Child Protection Committees should have in place policies and procedures to support workers. Additionally, it is incumbent upon workers to ensure practice is compliant with Article 22 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee should "receive appropriate protection" [4] .

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 specifically requires relevant authorities to presume that a victim of human trafficking is a child in circumstances where the age of a victim is uncertain, but there are reasonable grounds to believe that the victim is a child under 18 years of age.

Where concerns exist that a young person has been trafficked (or experienced any other form of child abuse) this is a child protection matter and will have priority over the age assessment task. It should be noted however that there may be information collated in the process of a child protection investigation which may be relevant to determining the issue of age.

Trafficked young people are likely to have experienced other forms of abuse and exploitation. How victims will experience trafficking and exploitation will differ and may be impacted on by their gender. Figures indicate for example that more female than male victims will experience sexual exploitation [5] . Victims may have been forced to learn a story to tell the authorities and been given documents which are false or belong to someone else. They may have been told to state that they are older than they actually are. Traffickers may have gone to great lengths to control and secure the young person's silence about what has really happened to them, including threats to their own or their family's lives. Culture and religion can be used erroneously against young people to control them, such as being told that a curse will be placed on their family if they do not comply.

Social workers should remain alert to the impact of trafficking or any other child abuse and any continuing threat on the young person's ability to participate in an assessment. Additional needs including specific health issues/ pregnancy need to be taken into account. Depending on their experiences, in some instances the young person's need for care and protection may impact on the timescale of any subsequent age assessment.

Whilst all unaccompanied young people will require appropriate accommodation and support, this is of heightened concern for trafficked young people. In other parts of the UK there is a significant issue concerning trafficked young people going missing shortly after being accommodated. Scotland to date has not had the same experience, although practitioners should remain cognisant of the risk.

Where a young person is suspected of having been trafficked and they are subsequently assessed as being a child, this should be considered a child protection matter and a referral should be made to the National Referral Mechanism ( NRM) available at: National Referral Mechanism. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 has in addition placed a duty (when enacted) on relevant authorities to notify the Chief Constable of Police Scotland where a child is suspected of having been trafficked.

Referral to the Children's Reporter

In discharging their statutory duties, local authorities must give consideration as to whether a child might require to be made subject to a Compulsory Supervision Order ( CSO) and therefore whether a referral to the Children's Reporter is necessary [6] . Anyone can refer a child to the Children's Reporter and a referral must be made when it is considered that a child is in need of protection, guidance, treatment or control and that a CSO might be necessary. The consideration of a referral to the Children's Reporter should not be delayed as a result of an age assessment being planned or carried out.


Asylum seeking young people may have experienced significant trauma during their migration journey. Their experiences may include direct experience of beatings, rape or torture and they may have been witness to the beating, rape, torture and killing of others including family members. Some may have been 'child soldiers' or fleeing from attempts to enlist them as 'child soldiers'. Their journeys to the UK may have been as a result of child trafficking and fraught with danger and uncertainty. [7]

Depending on their background and previous experiences, arrival in the UK may be an isolating experience. Language, food, culture, religious observance etc. may be very different and even objectionable to the young person. Previous experiences of authority and state officials means that border agency staff, police, social workers etc. could be mistrusted and even feared.

Research has indicated a correlation between post migration stresses and psychological distress including post traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD) and depression [8] . Evidence suggests that psychological problems such as these are more prevalent in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than in accompanied children [9] . A 2012 study found that about one-third of asylum-seeking Afghan children who arrive in the UK without their parents are likely to experience symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder [10] .

Being trauma informed means understanding the potential effects of trauma on the age assessment process:

  • The process can be re-traumatising
  • Trauma related difficulties may interfere with a young person's ability to answer questions
  • Trauma related difficulties mean that assessors have to be very careful about how they understand and interpret a young person's response

Workers should be sensitive to the possibility of the presence of trauma and ensure that this is considered in the undertaking of any assessment and the subsequent analysis of responses. An approach which is sensitive to the young person's needs is likely to convey a sense that their views are being taken seriously and that they are being treated fairly which could help mitigate and manage feelings of powerlessness and trauma. Where there is concern about a young person's emotional state, assistance should be sought from an appropriate health professional. Guidance to support social workers to take a trauma informed approach to undertaking age assessments is provided in Appendix 4.

Immigration status

The young person's immigration status will have implications for their options for support post assessment, particularly where they are subsequently assessed to be an adult.

It will be important to understand the young person's immigration status and whether they have made an asylum application etc. Whilst the asylum process is completely separate from the assessment of age, the Home Office may use the age assessment outcome to inform their own decision making (see Appendix 8 for further information).

Looked After Children status

The very fact of an age assessment being undertaken affirms the possibility of the person being a 'child'. Asylum seeking young people whose age is in dispute are generally provided with care and support under Section 25 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 which affords them Looked After Children status. It is suggested that local authorities should be mindful of the potential complexity concerning both the short and long term implications that arise from looking after young people whose ages are in doubt. The age assessment and placement and support planning processes should work closely together to manage these.

Provision of accommodation

It is important that as far as possible, planning takes place to ensure the most appropriate accommodation is in place before the age assessment commences. Recently arrived unaccompanied children and young people may require a high level of support to ensure that they are safe and their needs appropriately provided for. As with any child or young person's placement, presenting information and any background information will need to be taken into account when deciding which type of placement would be most appropriate. Whilst some may benefit from being in a fostering or family type placement, others may benefit from shared or group accommodation with other young people with cultural similarities or experiences. Working with the young person themself to develop an initial assessment will likely be the best way of ascertaining what best meets their needs.

It will be important that appropriate accommodation is in place for the young person for the duration of the assessment. Case law cautions against using adult services provision whilst carrying out an age assessment as the assessment is in itself an admission that the local authority is in some doubt:

"By agreeing to carry out an age assessment in the Claimant's case, the Defendant has accepted that the Claimant is someone who may be a child. " (S, R (on the application of) v London Borough of Croydon & Anor[2017] EWHC 265 (Admin) (24 February 2017).

Where it is subsequently assessed that the person is not a child, workers should be mindful of the fact that the individual may still be in need and ensure that they are transferred to appropriate adult supports with due care.


Communication across cultures and across languages can be challenging. Social workers will have the understanding and appreciation of the complexities of working in this field and should ensure that anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles underline their practice. At all stages of the age assessment, social workers should be aware that cultural norms and individual experience will impact on a young person's communication, both verbal and non-verbal.

Children and young people may experience numerous issues that impact upon their ability to communicate. This includes learning disabilities, mental health problems, the impact of trauma, and an inability to speak, read or write English. This needs to be considered throughout the age assessment process. It is possible that a specialist opinion may in some cases be required with regard to matters concerning the young person's ability to provide information and to meaningfully respond to questions. This would be the case where there were reasons to suggest that a young person may have a learning impairment, be suffering from a condition that affects their memory or have a psychological or psychiatric condition that affects their ability to properly participate in the assessment. Whilst experienced social workers may recognise indicators that raise such a concern it will be for an appropriate professional to provide an expert opinion on the matter if that is thought necessary.

Social workers are however well versed in considering the different ways in which children and young people communicate and it is important in undertaking any assessment to consider what the range of interactions and observations of the person (either experienced directly or through feedback from other professionals) is communicating and how the worker's own non verbal communication contributes to the understanding of the young person.

It is important to be aware that a young person may have been interviewed on a number of occasions by a number of different agencies, potentially for different purposes. This may include Home Office staff, police and solicitors. Children and young people are likely to find this whole process confusing and distressing, and may struggle to understand the differences between agencies. The impact of trauma as well as the numerous professionals that may be involved will likely affect their ability to take on board information given to them. Therefore, children and young people need to be given clear information about the reasons for conducting an age assessment, and it is important that this is reiterated on more than one occasion, and put into writing where possible.

Many of the children and young people arriving in the UK and claiming asylum come from countries in which the role of 'social worker' either may not exist or may be very different to that of the social work role in Scotland. Their experiences of authority figures may also be negative or abusive, and some may have fled their country of origin to avoid persecution by their national authority. In addition, trafficked children and young people may also have been given false information about what might happen if they come to the attention of the authority.

Key considerations for communication:

  • Consider the basics: as with any other interview, greeting the young person with respect and consideration can help to mitigate some of the fears the young person is likely to have
  • Identify the young person's communication needs
  • Consider the young person's ability to give consent, which must be unambiguous and by a statement or by clear affirmative action, compliant with data protection and human rights legislation
  • Arrange appropriate interpreting and translation services and wherever possible arrange for the interpreter to be physically present during interviews
  • Identify and anticipate any other issues that may affect communication – see Appendix 4 for guidance on taking a trauma informed approach to assessment
  • Prepare an explanation of the purpose to be given to the young person verbally and in writing (with any necessary supplementary explanations)


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