The demise of disguised compliance

How a few articles about social workers' use of the term disguised compliance ignited a long and interesting discussion on Twitter


  1. "Disguised complaince or undisguised nonsense?" is an article written by Paul Hart, a family law barrister, which caught my attention last week on Twitter especially because the last line captured it all "sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking". As Paul says, those who work in child protection will all remember where we were when we first read the phrase 'disguised compliance'. Paul started to notice it when he was reading an innocuous social work statement telling him what the parents were doing in response to a piece of 'direct work' the local authority was requiring of them. And although there was nothing unusual or extraordinary in any of that – he then noticed, out of the blue, "It was a case of disguised compliance". What annoyed Paul was that the term "disguised compliance" actually meant the precise opposite of what it was supposed to convey. It was an interesting article and I tweeted it, in the vague hope that social workers would pick up on it and start a discussion about it. What I was most interested in was...did it fry other peoples' heads like it did mine? What I wasn't expecting was that it would turn into one of the most intriguing debates I'd ever been involved in on Twitter.
  2. I think the first time I heard the term was on the Panorama documentary, the one where Jeremy Vine tries to work out what happened to Peter Connelly. And then I definitely know I heard it again when I was in practice and heard it being used to describe families we working with. Liz gives a great example of this in the following tweet:
  3. But as Paul Hart identified, the term "disguised compliance" isn't easy to understand, it is a 'headpecker'. And as Penny points out, it conceals an altogether different meaning:
  4. And Penny is right, how many other phrases have been introduced into social work with the best of intentions only to go awry at a later date? As Ian Cummins said it was not just "disguised compliance" that was an over used term but also.....
  5. Including "Mum" and "Dad" being used in reports instead of parents' proper names. And to demonstrate this point nicely @itmustbemum came along with her blog on being called "Mum" in the professional setting and describing how it felt to be mistaken as a professional because she had dressed smartly for a meeting.
  6. Then I learned that David Wilkins had also written about "disguised compliance" in Community Care in the article: 'We need to rethink our approach to disguised compliance'
  7. And interestingly David cited this example from a study he had been undertaking. This extract comes from a supervision between a social worker and manager: Social worker: I saw her last week and we talked about what might happen at the next conference. I was trying to focus on strengths, on what’s going well, because I think mum is used to professionals talking at her all the time about what’s going wrong or how worried they are and that must be hard for her.

    Deputy team manager: You’re trying to balance it out a bit, by making sure she knows some things are working well. What kind of thing did you talk to her about?

    Social worker: I said it was good Charlie is going to school more; he’s turning up with clean uniform and all his books, his PE kit, his trainers. And that she picks him up on time now, he’s not sitting in the office wondering where mummy is. So that’s good, I think.

    Deputy team manager: I hear some reservation in your voice.

    Social worker: Well, being strengths-focused is obviously a good thing, but how can I know if things are really getting better or if this is just because mum is worried about the plan? Maybe he’s going to school and doing well now but if we close the case, I don’t know if she really believes in all of this.

    Deputy team manager: You’re worried about disguised compliance?

    Social worker: Yeah, like when she knows I’m visiting, she tidies and cleans the house a bit. But she’s only doing that because I’m coming around.
  8. So interestingly David gave an example that was similar to the one Liz had mentioned earlier in the thread and also, not sure if you noticed but I'm sure Ian would, the parent was called "Mum". Not only did the confusing term "disguised compliance" pop up but it came in the same extract of another over used term "Mum". So what could social workers do to address their concern that parents are disguing their compliance?
  9. Well one way is to spend less time talking about whether parents are disguising their complaince and more time talking to families about their concerns and building relationships that are based on trust and not suspicion.
  10. Ha ha! good solution Emily. But perhaps, you're right, yeah. Why not?