Scj Blog 800x460px Disguised Compliance

An alternative view of disguised compliance

By Gemma Raw

​Last issue, in our regular, Have your Say column, we asked our readers to let us know how to spot the signs of ‘disguised compliance’. After publication, we were contacted by Jadwiga Leigh, who suggested that this is dated terminology and should no longer be used. In our article, Jadwiga Leigh and her colleagues Liz Beddoe and Emily Keddell share their thoughts and explain why we need to reconsider our use of this phrase.

Child and family social workers work with many different families- some of whom appear resistant to receiving support or intervention.

One term that has often been used to explain the behaviour of the reluctant or involuntary client is ‘disguised compliance’. 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 disengage from or resist social work intervention. And what they found even more baffling was that it was impossible to 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. 

In 2017, Paul Hart, a family law barrister, wrote an article for the Family Law website entitled ‘Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense?’ Hart was troubled by two things. First, although the term was being applied to the concept of parental resistance, ‘disguised compliance’, 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 their agreement with a social care plan but much more likely that parents would try and hide their disagreement with 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. 

Let’s take, for example, tidying the house before a professional arrives. The tidy home can make a social worker feel uncomfortable and concerned that s/he is being deceived. Yet many people will tidy their house when they know a visitor is coming. The 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 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 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 social worker predict risk nor does it address it. Instead, it binds both social worker 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. When practitioners are concerned that parents are resisting a plan, perhaps they should be asking: 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?

For a much deeper analysis please see: Leigh, J., Beddoe, L., Keddell, E. (forthcoming) 'Disguised compliance or undisguised nonsense? A critical discourse analysis of compliance and resistance in social work practice' Families, Relationships and Societies.