Disguised Compliance


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There can be a tendency in safeguarding and child protection work to use jargon and shorthand to explain quite complex ideas. One of the challenges of multi-agency working is to ensure that there is a common language. In this article, specialist safeguarding consultant, Andrew Hall, explores five phrases that often crop up in child protection reports and meetings.

“‘Disguised compliance’ involves a parent or carer giving the appearance of co-operating with child welfare agencies to avoid raising suspicions, to allay professional concerns and ultimately to diffuse professional intervention.” NSPCC Fact Sheet ‘Disguised Compliance’ (2010)

The term ‘disguised compliance’ was first used in 1993 in a book called ‘Beyond Blame: child abuse tragedies revisited’ by Peter Reder, Sylvia Duncan and Moira Gray. They used ‘disguised compliance’ to describe those parents who appear to be cooperating with children’s services in order to avoid questions being asked or to ensure that professionals do not get too close to understanding the issues and risks for the child. Disguised compliance is often found as a theme in Serious Case Reviews, including those which looked into the deaths of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly (‘Baby P’).

“Sometimes, during cycles of intermittent closure, a professional worker would decide to adopt a more controlling stance. However, this was defused by apparent co-operation from the family. We have called this disguised compliance because its effect was to neutralise the professional’s authority and return the relationship to closure and the previous status quo.” (Reder,P., Duncan, S. and Gray, M. (1993) Beyond blame: child abuse tragedies revisited. London: Routledge. pp 106-7)

Examples of Disguised Compliance include:

  • no effective change despite significant input by professionals
  • parents who agree to changes, but put little effort into implementing them
  • parents who only partially carry out any agreed plans
  • the child’s view is different to the parents’
  • cleaning the home before a planned visit by social workers
  • attending appointments more regularly than in the past
  • school attendance improving markedly

Risks of Disguised Compliance

  • cases can lack focus and drift over time
  • risks are not reduced, and may even worsen
  • significant issues may be missed
  • cases may be closed prematurely
  • the child is not safe

Learning from Serious Case Reviews
Disguised compliance: learning from case reviews (NSPCC)

  • Establish facts and gather evidence
  • Build chronologies
  • Record the children’s perspective and situation
  • Identify outcomes
  • Use of staff supervision to challenge beliefs

Sometimes professionals can be distracted by the complex needs of the parent/carer, but these needs may also be used to deliberately prevent the risks to the child being discovered.

Professional Optimism

Social Workers and other professionals are motivated by changing lives, looking for the best, aiming for small glimmers of improvement, but this can lead to professional optimism. An optimism that can sometimes lead to collusion with parents and see progress where there is none.

In their evaluation of serious case reviews (2009 – 2010), Ofsted reported:

“A frequent lesson from the reviews was that practitioners had been affected by what is known as the ‘rule of optimism’. This is a tendency by social workers and healthcare workers towards rationalisation and under-responsiveness in certain situations. In these conditions, workers focus on adults’ strengths, rationalise evidence to the contrary and interpret data in the light of this optimistic view. They confuse participation by parents with cooperation.” (paragraph 96)

“The effect of the rule of optimism in such cases was that parents were not challenged sufficiently. This was a lesson from a review that followed the death of a baby whose family was part of a culture of drug misuse. The mother was well presented, articulate and described by some professionals as ‘a lovely girl’. This led them to accept at face value statements that she made about her level of drug misuse and her ability to care for and protect her children.” (paragraph 98)

Serious safeguarding case reviews: lessons learnt 2009 – 2010 (Ofsted)

Respectful Uncertainty

Disguised Compliance is a feature in many Serious Case Reviews into the death of a child. Lord Laming in his investigation into the death of Victoria Climbie in 2003 says,

“the concept of “respectful uncertainty” should lie at the heart of the relationship between the social worker and the family. It does not require social workers constantly to interrogate their clients, but it does involve the critical evaluation of information that they are given.”

Healthy Scepticism

Later in Lord Laming’s Climbe report  he says that professionals should maintain “a healthy scepticism, an open mind and, where necessary, an investigative approach” to child protection work (paragraph 14.78). This ‘healthy scepticism’ should lead to professionals asking effective questions and looking beyond the obvious. The Victoria Climbie Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Lord Laming TSO (2003)

Start again Syndrome

Complex families are often well-know to a wide-range of services over a long period of time. Inevitably, there will be changes in the family’s home address, allocated professionals and possibly new service providers. At each of these transitional points, there is the danger of ‘start again syndrome’ with new assessments, and the possible loss of all the previous information known about the child. There is a risk that professional optimism along with disguised compliance, can again delay professionals in making an accurate assessment of the risk to a child or slow the chances of a successful intervention.

“One common way of dealing with the overwhelming information and the feelings of helplessness generated in workers by the families, was to put aside knowledge of the past and focus on the present, adopting what we refer to as the ‘start again syndrome’. In cases where children had already been removed because of neglect, parental history was not fully analysed to consider their current capacity to care for this child. Instead agencies supported the mother and family to ‘start again’. The ‘start again syndrome’ prevents practitioners and managers having a clear and systematic understanding of a case informed by past history.” Analysing child deaths and serious injury through abuse and neglect: what can we learn? (DSCF 2008)

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