Khatidja Chantler – The Power of the Visual in Assessing Children’s Ages

Event Date: Friday 5 November 2010, 9.30am – 5pm,
Sandra Burslem Building, Manchester Metropolitan University,
Manchester M15 6BH


Childhood and violence: international and comparative perspectives

Seminar 3: Aesthetics, ethics, politics: representations of violence against children

This seminar looks at violence and the visual in relation to childhood. It explores the different ways in which non-governmental organisations, the media and anti-war campaigns represent childhood suffering in the context of violence and how these representations intersect with discourses on childhood innocence to prevent the circulation of particular images of violence. It brings contemporary debate about the aestheticisation of suffering and the ethics and politics of representing “the body in pain” to the study of childhood.

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Khatidja Chantler (School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, University of Manchester)
The Power of the Visual in Assessing Children’s Ages

This paper focuses on a relatively new task facing social workers – that of assessing the age of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the UK. The pull of the visual in age assessment is extraordinarily powerful – not just in its gaze, but in its material effects. Whether a child is deemed to be a child or an adult (over 18 years) dramatically changes the course of the support offered to them. Hegemonic discourses of ‘asylum seekers’ as bogus, scroungers and as a risk to national security, normally associated with adults have now migrated to children and young people. Notions of the innocence of childhood is thus violently disrupted and the horror of war, conflict or persecution experienced by children and young people which should elicit a sympathetic response is being replaced by a culture of disbelief – not just in young peoples accounts of what happened to them, but also in terms of disbelieving their ages. This places social workers in an impossible situation and there is a danger that they are increasingly co-opted not just by the UKBA, but by their employing organisations who are under financial pressure. Local authority social work departments have fewer responsibilities (and therefore lower costs) towards adult asylum seekers compared to children and conceivably this may have a bearing on age assessments.

However, the underlying assumption is that it is possible to accurately determine a young person’s age and this paper therefore interrogates the processes by which social workers assess age, questions how reliable these processes are and whether social workers should be engaged in this particular type of assessment. There is considerable reliance on the visual to attempt to pin down how old a young person is – despite guidance urging those conducting age assessments to move beyond the visual. This guidance draws on developmental psychology in terms of assessing ‘maturity’ and social, emotional, and educational outcomes. Critiques (e.g. Burman, 2007) have amply demonstrated the racialised, classed and gendered nature of developmental psychology and thus moving beyond the visual is equally problematic, particularly with this group of young people.

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