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Disguised Compliance or Undisguised Nonsense? Two Years on From the Original Twitter Debate

In 2017, Paul Hart, a family law barrister, wrote an article for the Family Law website entitled ‘Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense?’ It was an article which led to a huge debate on Twitter which we, the authors, captured by turning into a storify. It took two years (!) but we have finally managed to turn that storify into an article which has just been published with Families, Relationships and Societies. For those who want the shortened version of the article, here is the blog that accompanies it.

When Hart published his online piece, it was clear he was troubled by two things. First, although the term disguised compliance was being applied to the concept of parental resistance, it was ineffectively describing that which was being implied. Therefore, although the term was being used by social workers to express concerns about non-compliance or resistance, when broken down into two distinct separate words, ‘disguised’ ‘compliance’, it actually meant ‘concealed’ ‘agreement’. Hart realized that it was highly unlikely that parents would hide theiragreementwith a social care plan but much more likely that parents would try and hide their disagreementwith a plan. Therefore, disguised compliance is a term that more effectively describes parental agreement rather than disagreement or resistance.

Second, Hart found that ‘disguised compliance’ was often being used as a diagnostic label; one which misled rather than helped the social worker. Hart used ‘diagnostic’ in this particular instance because every time ‘disguised compliance’ was applied to a parent, he noticed it was followed by a list of typical symptoms which attempted to define how their behaviour had met the criteria of suspected resistance.

Although Hart’s article came out two years ago, closely followed by the heated critical but passionate Twitter debate, we have noticed that the disguised compliance issue still prevails in social care practice. Now this may be because, contrary to belief, not everyone lives on Twitter (!) but it also means that there is a large part of the social work community that doesn’t have access to the Community Care Inform page, Sanctuary magazine or will be able to afford to download the latest FRS article (free til the 30th of June) where our written work exists challenging the problematic concept. What we have, however, noticed trumps all of the above work is the NSPCC online guides alongside consultant expert training that is being delivered to schools and local authorities on how to detect disguised compliance.

As a practitioner on New Beginnings (Jadwiga) I have personally encountered ‘disguised compliance’ being used and have, as a result, entered into some healthy discussions about it. I have noticed it being used to label families I work with who are deemed to not be engaging with professionals or who appear to be hiding something or have told “lies” about particular events. Being involved with the families as intensively as we are on New Beginnings we have alternative reasons for the above. We see parents not engage with professionals because they are scared of what it may lead to or they feel it is a waste of time because they are not being heard. This leads to them then appearing to hide from people in question, mainly because they don’t want confrontation as when they have previously expressed their views they are penalized for the way they have done so. And it is then that the different narratives (or “lies” as one teacher recently called it) emerge as a professional sees or experiences one thing, and the parents another.

The remaining part of this blog will therefore explore a bit of the historical context, the rationale for the persistent usage of disguised compliance and then finally a summary concluding what could be done differently.

It is without doubt that child and family social workers work with many different families- some of whom appear resistant to receiving support or intervention. Disguised compliance is one term that has often been used to explain the behaviour of the reluctant or involuntary client. This term first emerged from a study which summarised all the major child abuse inquiries that had occurred in England since 1973. The authors (Reder et al., 1993) felt the term ‘disguised compliance’ was effective in describing the way a family responded to a social worker when s/he adopted a more controlling stance with them. The examples they gave were: a sudden increase in school attendance; attending a run of appointments; engaging with professionals such as health workers for a limited period of time; cleaning the house before receiving a visit from a professional.

However, the authors also noticed that alongside the theme of disguised compliance, emerged a puzzling pattern of ‘prediction’ (Reder et al.1993: 131). Despite reading 35 inquiry reports, the authors found that it was impossible to predict which families would disengagefromor resistsocial work intervention. And what they found even more baffling was that it was impossibleto determine whether this form of disengagement or resistance actually increased the likelihood of the child being killed. Although this limitation was discussed in detail in their book Beyond Blame, it was not the main part of the book subsequently taken forward and debated. Instead, the notion of ‘disguised compliance’ became a regular unchallenged feature of a number of serious case reviews, government reports, academic articles, factsheets relating to child abuse and social work blogs.

So let’s explore some of the examples in which we have seen it being used in various contexts. Let’s take for example, the tidying of the house scenario which normally takes place before a professional arrives. The tidy home can make a social worker feel uncomfortable and concerned that s/he is being deceived. S/he may therefore suspect that at all other times the house remains messy and dirty, and that motivation to tidy is only triggered by the visit. However, what is not acknowledged, is how the nature of this action is more akin to a performance, to making a good impression to a professional with power, than it is to disguised compliance.

One way of thinking about an individual’s performance in more detail is to think about Erving Goffman's (famous sociologist) observations of dramaturgy and in particular, stage management. Goffman (1959) made it clear that when establishing where performances take place, what needs to be clarified is the context in order to understand why a certain performance is being delivered at that time. Goffman recognised that performances could be deceptive but that making a good impression was an activity that the majority of society engaged in. So, there are many people who will tidy their house when they know a visitor is coming. The important difference, is not everyone is accused of disguised compliance when they do.

Another example, is when there is an increase in school/ health appointments. When social workers first become involved in a family’s life, it is likely that a parent will make positive changes which demonstrate that improvements are being made. However, when these improvements are not sustained, the social worker may use their position to drive home the importance of education and parental responsibility. The parent may see the social worker’s response as threatening and aggressive and their desire to make further changes may subside even further. This may lead to a complete breakdown in communication between the two parties especially if the professional continues to exert a more authoritative stance and the parent attempts to do the same or withdraws from the relationship altogether due to feeling misunderstood, ashamed or angry. The more the parent withdraws the more suspicious the professional becomes and this is where the belief develops that the parent is trying to hide something.

We could sit here all day giving examples of when it has been used and how it could be interpreted differently when you hear the parent’s side of the story. The concept of disguised compliance needs to, therefore, be used with caution because although it does work well in labelling the parent as the problem, it does not help the concerned professional predict risk nor does it address it. Instead, it binds both professional and parent into a no-win situation that not only fails to recognise that there is risk-averse thinking at play but also that there are power imbalances present in that relationship.

If professionals were to begin by asking themselves: What has led to this situation? Where have these concerns come from? And what skills can I use to help parents understand these concerns so that they can reverse the situation? They may start to understand why parents are resisting a plan. By opening up the conversation and taking a relationship based approach to talking about what is making the professional feel uncomfortable, the professional can make the ‘issue’ transparent and help the parent see what their concerns are. In return, the professional will hear and learn what the parent has to say about the situation and what their perspectives are.

In child protection work, expectations of compliance almost always emerge in the context of a contract-like agreement between the professional and service user that establishes roles and responsibilities. However, without collaboration from parents, lack of parental investment is a likely outcome. The parent then becomes the problem rather than the professional…. or the forensic, risk-laden context in which the professional is situated in. And, sadly, these kind of cultural contexts are primed to interpret the behaviour of parents who do not keep appointments but do tidy the house as exhibiting ‘disguised compliance’.

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