Disguised Compliance in Child Protection Social Work

Disguised Compliance in Child Protection Social Work

The recent publication of the Serious Case Review into the death of Poppy Widdison has once again shown that disguised compliance was a factor in failing to prevent a tragedy.

We have seen disguised compliance as a critical issue in safeguarding failures many times before, perhaps most infamously with the death of Baby P, whose mother had rubbed chocolate over him to disguise his bruises when last visited by his Social Worker Maria Ward.

Discussing this, Harry Ferguson, professor of Social Work at the University of Nottingham, points out ‘the skillful deceit’ used by Peter Connelly’s mother and partner to conceal the injuries they had inflicted on the defenceless little boy.

Professor Ferguson goes on to warn professionals of the risk of ‘disguised compliance, where superficial cooperation is used as a way of concealing abuse’.

Lord Laming, the former chief inspector for social services, also points out the great lengths that some people who deliberately harm children will go to in order to disguise their actions.

“(People) become very clever at diverting attention away from what has happened. Those who work in this field – social workers, police officers, health visitors– have to recognise this in their evidence gathering… have to be sceptical; have to be streetwise; have to be courageous.”

The message from Professor Ferguson, Lord Laming and many others is clear:

Disguised compliance puts children at risk of significant harm

Considering this stark warning, the NSPCC identify three major risk factors that Social Workers are faced with in cases involving disguised compliance:

  • Disguised compliance causes missed opportunities for intervention
  • Disguised compliance takes professional attention away from the child
  • Disguised compliance causes over-optimism about progress

Missed opportunities, the child’s voice not being heard and professional optimism causing ineffective assessments and a rush to close cases… how many times have we heard those failures before?

How many times when we have heard those things have we been told ‘lessons will be learned’ and tragedies will ‘never happen again’?

As we wait in vain for structural changes that will free us up to spend more time getting to know children, there are some warning markers we can become more aware of to better detect disguised compliance.

Repeated criticisms, complaints or ‘playing professionals’ off

Criticism of Social Workers can come in many forms, from issues with the way assessments have been written up to comments about the Social Workers’ personal manner. Whilst we of course must reflect on our practise, constant criticism can be an effective tool in moving the focus away from a lack of progress to blaming the Social Worker for not effecting change more quickly.

The same issue presents with threats of formal complaints or repeatedly asking to speak to a manager, bypassing the allocated Social Worker. Complaints can also be informal, often passed on to other professionals or fellow Social Workers who may take messages when covering a duty phone.

In cases of disguised compliance, we can also see discord sown amongst multi-agency colleagues who have different risk thresholds and responsibilities. One of the most common clashes can come between professionals whose service user is the child and professionals whose service user is the parent or carer.

Canceled meetings and a desire for pre-arranged home visits

Cancelling meetings and failing to attend conferences are some of the more obvious signs that there are deeper issues at hand. Sometimes there may be genuine reasons for non-engagement but, if people are regularly missing meetings and failing to take child protection processes seriously, further assessment must be undertaken.

It goes without saying that unannounced visits are essential to get a true understanding of home life. However, the reality of modern Social Work is that this can be hard to do with large caseloads and micro-managers demanding visits are never out of timescales. But unannounced visits, including early in the morning and late in the evening, are the only way of truly understanding a child’s home life.

Deflecting attention from the issues at hand

Effectively protecting children involves assessing risk, putting in place interventions and reviewing progress accordingly. As this is only ever meant to be a targeted and short-term process, focussing on the presenting risks is essential to Social Workers providing timely outcomes for children (despite what many people believe, we want to be in and out of children’s lives as quickly as possible!).

Our assessments and interventions can be disrupted by people attempting to deflect or minimise currently presenting risk factors. Looking to pin blame on others, bringing up perceived professional failings from the past, intimidation tactics and turning the focus onto the Social Worker are just some of the deflections to be wary of when faced with disguised compliance.

Although we must be vigilant, most people we support will not be disguising their compliance

Although tragedies like the fates of Peter Connelly and Poppy Widdison happen far too often (31 children in England and Wales were murdered by their parents last year), the clear majority of parents we work with will have no desire to kill their own young.

Most of the time people will be late for contact because they really have missed a bus.

Most of the time people will miss a meeting because they’ve been asked to go on so many courses and go to so many meetings they’ve lost track of things.

Most of the complaints we face will be rooted in genuine frustrations about a system that is not always friendly to parents.

So please heed these warnings and be guarded against disguised compliance, but don’t fall into the trap of accusing every parent of this just because they have a different idea about what’s in the best interests of their own child.

Stay safe out there my friends.


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