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Disguised Compliance – Or Undisguised Nonsense?

Paul Hart, barrister of 15 Winckley Square, discusses a term (and its appropriateness) which has become ubiquitous in social work statements in recent years.

Paul Hart, barrister, 15 Winckley Square

Paul Hart, barrister, 15 Winckley Square Chambers

Let me recommend Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English. This quirky and entertaining tutor lays down a chain of reasoning to demonstrate that world civilisation depends upon writing well. Here is a much-abbreviated version of what he says:

"Step one. Words are what we think with as well as communicate with. Without words we can feel (tired, hungry, angry and so on), but we cannot think. We cannot reason things out.

Step two. From Step one it then follows that, if we are to think correctly and usefully, words need to be used correctly, obviously."

Had I space to set out all the subsequent steps, you would learn that world civilisation does depend on writing well, because they conclude with this:

"Step nine. Would that the harmful effects of bad grammar stopped here. They do not. Civilisation itself exists only in the various societies that make it up. If enough societies in the world crumble as a result of bad decisions taken because of bad thinking, yes, the whole of world civilisation faces collapse, with consequences for each individual that are literally incalculable."

There it is. Poor use of language leads to the destruction of civilisation. This may contain an element of hyperbole, but it has a kernel of truth. It is quoted here by way of preface to some thoughts on the latest pile of verbiage to afflict our professional lives.

The birth of 'disguised compliance'
You can all remember where you were when you first read the phrase 'disguised compliance'. If your experience was anything like mine, you were reading an innocuous social work statement telling you what the parents were doing in response to a piece of 'direct work' the local authority was requiring of them. Nothing unusual or extraordinary in any of that – but then, out of the blue, you read, "It was a case of disguised compliance".

Since that first encounter with the term, you will have noticed that its use has increased exponentially. So much so that you want to shout, "You're peckin' me 'ead" (to use a phrase from up north of which Mr Gwynne would not approve).

Although its popularity is a recent phenomenon, the term has been around for over 20 years. Apparently, it was first used in a 1993 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." (Safeguarding In Schools)

Whatever its origin, it has now found its way into NSPCC material and training. The NSPCC website describes it thus:

"Disguised compliance involves parents giving the appearance of co-operating with child welfare agencies to avoid raising suspicions and allay concerns. Published case reviews highlight that professionals sometimes delay or avoid interventions due to parental disguised compliance".  (March 2014)

The website goes on to identify the risks that disguised compliance generates – missing opportunities to make interventions, removing focus from children, and over-optimism about progress. It goes on to provide tips for recognising disguised compliance and how to improve practice. There is even an NSPCC 'factsheet' from March 2010 to inform everyone about it.

The problems with disguised compliance
What may be said about this ubiquitous term?

First, what it describes is not disguised compliance. It uses the wrong words to describe the concept in view. And this failure is complete, in that the term 'disguised compliance' means the precise opposite of what it is meant to convey. That is quite an achievement.

The NSPCC, and social workers who embrace the phrase, are describing parents who are non-compliant, but are pretending to be compliant. Therefore, what is being disguised is not compliance, but non-compliance. It follows that if we must have a phrase of this kind (and I do not for one moment accept that we must), it ought to be 'disguised non-compliance' rather than 'disguised compliance'.

'Disguised compliance' is theoretically possible, but it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which it may realistically happen. It would occur where a parent was compliant with what a social worker was requiring of him, but was pretending not to be. Bill the Wife Beater may decide to do the domestic violence programme but be so terrified of losing face with his mates in the pub that he signs up under a false name and dishonestly tells the social worker that he went fishing instead. This would be disguised compliance and is possible, but unlikely.

It is not immediately apparent why a term that is so obviously fallacious was ever thought of, let alone embraced and disseminated to the extent that it is now difficult to read a social work statement without being ritually clubbed with it. For the rest of this article I shall, with reluctance, use the term in its corrected form of 'disguised non-compliance'.

Second, the use of the term as a diagnostic label with a list of typical symptoms is capable of misleading rather than helping the social worker, and may (and often does) lead to a hasty or lazy misdiagnosis.

The NSPCC material identifies five possible signs of disguised non-compliance – (1) deflecting attention, (2) criticising professionals, (3) tidying the house before arranged visits, (4) promising to take up services then not doing so, and (5) avoiding contact with professionals. It is worth looking at each in turn.

Take (1), which is amplified as "Parents focus on engaging well with one set of professionals, for example in education, to deflect attention from their lack of engagement with other services"'. This breaks down into three constituent parts. First, good engagement with (say) education. Second, poor engagement with others. Third, an intention (the 'mens rea' as they say in crime) that the good engagement should deflect attention from the poor engagement.

This implies a sophistication of thought and planning that is seldom present in parents involved in public law proceedings. Further, it overlooks the reality that most poorly-performing parents will not make smooth progress across all frontiers simultaneously. This leads to the risk that the social worker, seeing the mother starting to get the child to school but still struggling to keep the house clean, lazily reaches for the diagnosis of disguised non-compliance, just because one of the symptoms appears to be present. This in turn leads to the parent feeling, with some justification, that she's going to get it in the neck come what may, and so loses heart even with the task of getting Callum to school on time.

Symptom (2) is fraught with risk from the social work perspective. It is amplified as "Parents criticise other professionals to divert attention away from their own behaviour." Once again, this concept reduces into three elements. First, criticism of a professional. Second, the parent's own behaviour. Third, an intention on the part of the parent that the criticism will divert attention from his behaviour. Of course, some parents respond to scrutiny and criticism by firing out verbal chaff in attempt to deflect it, but it is easy to spot when that is happening. There are other possible reasons for criticism from a parent. The parent may make a valid criticism without any ulterior motive. Or the criticism may be unmerited but the result of a misunderstanding rather than motivated by an intention to deflect attention. The whole range of possibilities needs to be explored before any conclusion adverse to the parent may properly be drawn.

Symptom (3) relates to pre-arranged home visits and is expanded upon as "Pre-arranged home visits present the home as clean and tidy with no evidence of any other adults living there." This has the unpleasant aroma of 'heads I win, tails you lose'. Fail to tidy the house, and it goes into the final social work statement as a criticism; tidy it, and you're disguising your non-compliance. Of course, an unannounced visit that encounters an untidy house may evidence that the previously tidy house was the result of disguised non-compliance, but even then, that is not the only possible conclusion. The announced visit may just have coincided with a visit from a supportive relative who set about tidying the house. Let me tell you a secret: if we have friends round for a curry, the house is always tidier on their arrival than it normally is. Except for my study, which is out of bounds.

Now take (4) – promising to take up services but not doing, and (5) – avoiding contact with professionals. If 'disguised non-compliance' is giving a false appearance of co-operation, what is there about not taking up services, and avoiding professionals, that gives the slightest impression of co-operation? There is nothing disguised here at all. It is overt non-compliance.
A father who promised to take up a domestic violence course but sent his identical twin brother along in his place would be guilty of disguised non-compliance of this kind. I don't recall anything like that ever happening – and how would we ever find out if it did?

The demise of disguised compliance
Mr Gwynne has a point. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking. It is time for this hopeless, dangerous misnomer to be consigned to Room 101. It is rapidly turning into a pervasive pseudo-diagnosis that is inimical to proper evidence gathering and intellectual analysis of the facts of each individual case. Nobody is helped by a phrase that means the opposite of what is intended, and is popular only because it has a superficial air of academic sophistication. If parents are caught out pretending, just say so. It's called pretending. To call it anything else is just pretentious.