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Feds Revise Guidelines on Using Dental Records to Establish Refugee Children's Ages

Revision follows case highlighted in WW last month—the story of a 17-year-old Somali refugee who now lives in Gresham.

The federal agency that takes care of unaccompanied refugee children has updated its guidelines for establishing those refugees' ages—a crucial question that helps determine whether a refugee can stay in the United States.

On July 5, two weeks after WW reported the story of a 17-year-old Somali refugee who was thrown into federal immigration detention awaiting deportation based solely on dental records that suggested he was over 18, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has clarified that that's illegal.

The guidelines used to say:

"Medical age assessment procedures (i.e., dental and skeletal [bone] maturity assessments using radiographs) may be used to determine age, but only if other information is inconclusive."

They now say:

"Dental and skeletal (bone) maturity assessments using radiographs may be used to determine age, but only in conjunction with other evidence."

The old guidelines were misleading. United States law has for years prohibited relying solely on radiographs to determine someone's age, but in the case of the 17-year-old refugee (whom WW identified only as Billal) the feds didn't follow their own rules. Billal was released from detention after two months, after his pro bono attorneys sued the U.S. government.

The update suggests that the agency is trying to avoid any future problems.

Victoria Palmer, a spokeswoman for the agency, says the agency doesn't want to confuse care providers, who work with the agency to house unaccompanied minors.

"The rules have not changed," she writes in an email. "ORR policy already required multiple forms of evidence to conduct age determinations and also noted that maturity assessments using radiographs may be used to determine age. This update was made to provide more clarity to care providers."