7. Assessment: Gathering Information and Analysis
Key questions for practice:
- Will documentation be available/reliable?
- What information should be gathered?
- Getting information from other professionals in writing?
- The provision and use of medical information?
- What needs to be recorded?
- The potential for bias?
- What needs to be considered in interpreting the information?
- What support and review arrangements are in place to ensure the assessment is robust and will withstand scrutiny?
Many of the young people arriving in the UK and claiming asylum come from countries with very different practices regarding official documentation and the recording of age and identity and may not have any documentation. In some age is considered to be relatively unimportant and in others conflicts or persecution mean that it is irrelevant to the struggles of everyday life.
Documentation can be stolen or lost on the journey to this country and in order to survive it may be necessary to deceive or mislead through using false documentation. Sources of information therefore will be limited and, in the absence of reliable and relevant documentation, there will be greater reliance upon information directly obtained from the young person themselves. This emphasises the point noted previously concerning the importance of communication. Assessments will be dependent upon accurate interpretation which picks up the nuance and detail of what is said as well as the basic 'factual' content.
As much information as possible should be gathered prior to interviews taking place to make best use of the interview time and not subject the young person to questioning for longer than necessary. Assessors should have access to and use relevant information concerning the young person's country and culture of origin, religious background and ethnicity to help them in deciding what information to seek and in its analysis. As previously noted, this guidance reaffirms the ecological approach underpinning the GIRFEC framework.
Unless in a specialist team (or they have a personal connection), most social workers are unlikely to have detailed knowledge of the country of origin of the young person being assessed. This knowledge can help support social workers in both understanding and interpreting information as well as assist in framing questions during the interview process. Sources such as the Home Office ( Appendix 8), Scottish Guardianship Service ( Appendix 9), Scottish Refugee Council and Amnesty International can assist but it is important to remember that there will be limitations both in terms of the reliability and the currency of any information. A list of possible sources can be found at Appendix 10.
As with any other social work led assessment, impressions should not be formed solely on physical appearance. Beyond understanding the cultural, societal and religious experiences of the young person, a pen picture of the young person is required alongside observations regarding their interactions, responses to care etc to contextualise information and contribute to an analysis of the young person's particular situation and what that might mean for assessing their age. Use of a Genogram and Ecomap can help both gather information and support organisation and analysis of the same. Templates can be found in the National Risk Framework  .
Information from the young person
The young person themself is likely to be the primary source of information. Whilst many unaccompanied young people will present without any documentation, some may have this or are subsequently able to access this. Workers should consider whether there is any need for expert authentication of any documents. However, workers would need to exercise caution in how this is done. Where any state responsibility or systemic persecution/ lack of protection isn't fully understood, contacting an embassy or an organisation in the young person's country of origin (or even in the UK) could put the young person at serious risk. However, it might be possible to confirm information from the young person in ways which would not put them at risk such as internet searches regarding school information etc.
During the course of the interviews, the young person should be supported to provide their own narrative of their life and given the opportunity to comment on information gathered from themselves and other sources. Where gaps or inconsistencies are identified in the course of the interviews or any other part of the information gathering process, this should be discussed with the young person and their views recorded. We know from experience young persons' accounts will change as they develop trust in those supporting them. It is important that no assumptions are made as to the reasons for any inconsistencies etc. and all questioning should be on an inquisitorial rather than adversarial basis.
There may be special issues in cases where siblings or other relatives are being age
assessed (both in terms of their assessment and the nature of their support). Each young person should be assessed in their own right but there may be benefit in considering how information about one relates to another. The potential benefits and problems that can arise in such situations however will require specific and extra consideration. As part of any age assessment assessors should ask where and when the young person last had contact with family members and whether there are any family members living in the United Kingdom.
Information from other sources
The assessment should aim to be holistic and multi-agency in order to gather information from all relevant sources. It should utilise the information and views of agencies that have a relevant involvement with the young person or are able to provide a specialist opinion. This might include health professionals, educational psychologists, teachers, care and support staff, foster carers or others who have some relevant knowledge. It is particularly helpful to include information that is drawn from contacts in different types of setting. The assessors should consider who else might be sources of information to contribute to the assessment when they are planning and reviewing the progress of the assessment. The young person themselves may be able to assist in identifying sources.
Medical information may play an important part in contributing to age assessments but physiological assessments have wide margins of error and so there are caveats around what weight medical evidence should have in an overall assessment. Coupled with this there are ethical considerations which will have a bearing upon how and when medical experts, such as paediatricians, may become involved. A medical assessment is only likely to be available where this was required to meet a young person's health needs. Medical information, where available, is best used by being taken into account as one part of a 'Merton' ( Appendix 6) compliant social work age assessment. It is important to note that a medical report is different from general information / opinion which may be provided by a health professional as a contribution to an age assessment. Where a medical practitioner has had involvement with the young person and may be able to contribute, irrespective of whether any relevant medical assessment has been undertaken, it may be reasonable to seek their views regarding their observations of the young person relevant to the age assessment task.
Specialist information and opinion may play a part in an assessment. Social workers should aim to include this where possible and local authorities may wish to consider developing suitable arrangements to support this. In deciding what specialist involvement might be necessary there is value in considering a tiered intervention approach based upon the presenting situation and statements from the young person. Such interventions should be reasonable and proportionate and based upon an indicated need. It is understood that accessing specialist services may extend the timescales of the assessment. Decisions concerning this should aim to strike a balance between ensuring that the evidence underpinning an age assessment is 'good enough' while avoiding undue delay.
Where assessors wish to seek information from other agencies as part of the assessment they should ascertain if those agencies require the young person's specific consent for this and if so request it. It should be noted that highlighting that an age assessment is taking place is likely to be sharing confidential information and it is therefore likely that consent will be required. At all times, action must be compliant with the relevant human rights and data protection legislation. Where possible, information from other sources should be gathered prior to undertaking interviews with the young person to inform the interview process and minimise the number of interviews. Information requested from other professionals should be provided in written format to the assessors, detailing their involvement with the child and any interaction and observations of the child relevant to the assessment.
Where any conclusion is being drawn as to the age of the young person, this should detail the reasons for the opinion and any evidence which supports the conclusion. It should be noted that opinions can change over time and any changes in views should be communicated to the assessors in writing. Assessors should also seek to have access to any relevant records that may assist them as well as noting the opinions that other professionals may have drawn from these records. Assessors will need to consider and weight the information provided by other sources and how that contributes to the overall assessment. A sample request has been attached at Appendix 2 to help social workers in drafting requests for information.
There should be explicit agreement between the assessors and the relevant manager about managing recording arrangements for both the gathering of information and interviews. Records do not have to be verbatim but should be sufficiently full to include all significant points. In particular there should be detailed notes taken of the interviews. Issues concerning accuracy or veracity regarding interview notes should be raised as close to the time as possible so that clarification can be sought and noted by the assessing workers and the appropriate adult.
Written contributions from other professionals and assessor's notes of interviews constitute part of the young person's case file and access to the file is governed by legislation and local authority policies relating to the management of information. Arrangements should be in place for the processing of sensitive personal data and understood by the young person. All action must be compliant with the relevant human rights and data protection legislation, remembering that where consent has been given this can subsequently be withdrawn .
Whilst there is no immediate requirement for notes to be shared it should be understood that a request for information under data protection legislation may be made by the young person (and their legal representative if applicable), also that records may be examined as part of any later judicial review process.
Supervision, oversight and addressing the potential for "bias"
'Bias' is an issue to be aware of in all assessments and this is particularly true in
relation to age assessments. Conscious and unconscious attitudes concerning asylum and race, organisational cultures and wider societal attitudes towards immigrants and asylum seekers can all influence how information is collated and understood. As previously noted, there may sometimes be inconsistencies in a person's account and workers must test their interpretations to understand their significance and ensure that a culture of disbelief does not develop. Acknowledging the potential for bias may not prevent it but it at least allows it to be considered. The use of supervision and the adoption of a 'questioning of assumptions' approach may assist. Local authorities should ensure that internal oversight arrangements allow supervisors the opportunity to review and confirm the assessment before it is signed off by the agency.
Analysis and robustness of assessment
Assessors should be confident about making judgements within their own sphere of expertise but should also understand where a different professional opinion would be helpful. Similarly where information is provided by other parties the assessors should be aware of the basis of that information, including how experienced or qualified that contributor might be, as this would affect the weight accorded to it.
It is unlikely that any one piece of information will point to a conclusive assessment of age. As with any other social work led assessment, assessors will need to consider each piece of information on its own, the detail, evidence and source in order to decide what weight is attributed to it in forming the overall assessment. Age assessments are unlikely to be able to be concluded with absolute certainty as there is currently no definitive test. In reaching any conclusion, consideration should be given to case law, ensuring that any decision has the young person's best interest as a primary consideration,  and where there is reasonable grounds to believe that the young person has been trafficked, ensuring that decision making is compliant with Section 12 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015.
It is important that assessors are able to evidence and account for their conclusions. This should involve identifying relevant information, indicating how it is interpreted, what weight is given to it and what conclusion is drawn. Whilst it is difficult to conclude a definitive age, assessors should be mindful of the importance of having a definitive age and date of birth, both in terms of the young person's ability to access services and their identity. Whilst the fundamental task of the age assessment is to determine whether the individual is an adult or a child based on the information available, it is important that any conclusions about a young person's date of birth are as exact as they can be and made in consultation with them.
Given the evolving body of social work practice, case law in this field and the potentially adversarial nature of the subject it is quite possible that at some point the assessment process used and its conclusions will come under legal challenge and scrutiny. In addition to any managerial review and internal oversight arrangements, local authorities may wish to consider whether there is a role for their legal services.
Support for workers/debrief
Managers should be mindful of the possibility of the presence of trauma for the young person and any subsequent impact on the workers undertaking the assessment. It will be important to consider any debriefing and support for workers arrangements as necessary.