‘Disguised compliance’ – innocent shorthand term or jargon hiding a powerful discourse?

In a recent twitter storm (or perhaps more accurately, a surge)  there was a great exchange of ideas between Aotearoa and UK social workers, lawyers and service user advocates  on the topic of the term ‘disguised compliance’ in child protection. We say ‘surge’ because it was a powerful and constructive exchange rather than the sometimes personal, incoherent and bitter fights that can erupt in that forum.

The discussion itself was prompted by an article ‘Disguised Compliance – Or Undisguised Nonsense‘ written by an English lawyer Paul Hart critiquing the term on two counts: that it doesn’t really describe what it attempts to (that it should be called ‘disguised NON compliance’) and that, more worryingly, it’s used in a kind of medical diagnosis way to describe almost any kind of hesitance or reluctance to engage on the part of people engaged with child protection services. In some cases, its power as an interpretive lens has become so broad that it can put people in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position where almost anything they do is viewed suspiciously. Another article ‘We need to rethink our approach to disguised compliance‘ by David Wilkins similarly expressed concern about how commonplace the term had become , not just in “relation to (suspected or actual) manipulation or intent to deceive. Rather, it can be used as a catch-all term in relation to almost any signs of resistance or even just ambivalence on the part of the parent”.

On the other hand, active manipulation of facts can obscure what is actually happening for a child. Anyway, one of the main players in this discussion, Jadwiga Leigh, has put the various threads of this discussion into the neat Storify page below. We are curious to know in our Aotearoa New Zealand  context – do practitioners here see it being used in the same way? Is it used too widely here? Or has it maintained its specific usage and is generally helpful?

Note: Unfortunately this is no longer available as Storify closed. An article following up the issues raised in this post will be available in due course and a link posted here.

4 replies on “‘Disguised compliance’ – innocent shorthand term or jargon hiding a powerful discourse?”

Re ” We are curious to know in our Aotearoa New Zealand context – do practitioners here see it being used in the same way? Is it used too widely here? Or has it maintained its specific usage and is generally helpful?”
Well said! I have not encountered the term (“disguised compliance”) but certainly felt its effects as a member of a CYFS “client” family where I could “not do anything “right” whichever way I behaved or managed the situation.
My son had an early diagnosis of “ADHD”. After some experience I began to suspect that the professionals involved were acting on their own perceptions about how they would manage in my situation and not really bothered about the reality I faced at that time.
After some months and manipulations later, I decided to relinquish my son into care, – mainly because at that time I realized that this could be done voluntarily with some hope of professional co-operation, or would be done forcefully.
At that time, I was asked for a treatment permission from a health specialist . I did not refuse to accept the diagnosis and drug regime when it was presented but my request for more information about the drugs, and inclusion in the behavioral program was interpreted by the doctor as “non-compliance”.
At that time many of the associated networks of professional help were constantly under pressure with funding restraints, social and political pressure which drove administrative practice, and who could access which resources.
Professional health (PH), CYFS (C1980s) was often manipulative towards “clients”. I experienced being “dropped” in situations which were disguised as “accidental” but worked in a way which caused mental and emotional stress for me, my child, and made it difficult for others to show support for me.
I experienced and saw other families experience being lied to, having pseudo or outright lies told about them to key people in their lives, “clients” and supporters sent on expensive “wild goose chases” and otherwise deceived. PH and CYFS workers often “blew hot & cold”as a behavioral management technique. Many of these techniques are mentioned in Family Violence information websites.
Often I do not think this was coming from the “authorities” but from voluntarily formed regional privately run and public services SW networks who formed informal networks based on their personal belief systems and their perceptions about their “client” base, or simply found it effective to manage access to funding, services and caseloads this way.
I will stress that NOT EVERY social worker and professional went along with this regime. I met and worked with many skilled and kind people, some of whom eventually quit the service. But many SW went along with these networks which often placed their colleagues in unfair situations and “clients” in “unwinable” situations.
In these circumstances often localized welfare staff, (even in main centers like Auckland, Wellington etc ) felt that they”knew” many of the people coming to their attention by associated (perceived) reputations, ie living in a “state housing” area, or run down localities or nowadays renting rather than being a home owner. You were often identified with or could be targetted by “gang associates” or “troubled families” who were “known” to be living nearby etc. This was an automatic SW “red flag” – as was receiving a benefit of being a sole parent. It still is.
Often the professionals involved held perceptions about how they would respond to the hardships parents faced and managed, but they were coming from the perspective of not actually having the experience from a “client parent’s” perspective. It was rare for a SW to be interested in any different perspective other than their own, or their colleagues. Often this consumes all aspects of the “client’s” life.
There is virtually no (safe) social outlet services, other than regularly attending “Church”or community based “mental health” personal lifestyle improvement coaching programs (which definitely does not suit everyone) for anyone caught in this situation to regain their lives and social functioning.
At “Church” and MH coaching programes people often face a similar socially imposed regime of “coercive compliance”. There are many people in these circles who use the opportunity to force feed belief systems as a condition of social inclusion, which is a breach of human rights in itself.
Other friends of mine went through similar experiences in the early 90s and more recently into the millennium, so the environment for “client” parents has not changed significantly, despite the social activism and changing CYFS policies. Actual effective parent activism remains weak.
The overriding feeling of vulnerable parents towards intervention is still mainly fear, often invoking unquestioning compliance at all costs, (interpreted as “disguised compliance”?) or/and after some time (sometimes years) experiencing this regime feelings of anger, resentment and despair develop and turn inwards, leading mostly to drug and alcohol dependence. Social services of this nature are profitable businesses.
It is disturbing that there is much done to separate nuclear families into acting as “individuals” and from there encouraging “client” parents into the mental health system to relieve “distress” or “stress”. MH drugs and treatment are often offered as an inducement to parents who want to regain custody. Once there they have a great deal of difficulty regaining any personal relationship with their child -even when they become an adult.
The difference between this past and the latest reforms is that the latest “child centered ” approach could have the result of entrenching this style of social management of distressed families into PSW policy. The concept of “disguised compliance” is not so much obsolete as it’s existence is incorporated into social policy in a way that eliminates the social workers from having to identify it as an issue.
The “new” administration seems to aim to treat all “Clients” as practicing “disguised compliance”.

My experience as a front line community based social worker,when it comes to ‘disguised compliance’ is more around what I call ‘back door referrals’
Where there is no contractual obligations with the statutory agencies, and they are at a loss on where to send families for the appropriate interventions
A family get told to self refer on the understanding that their status will be changed from going into FGC. A family arriving face to face at the agency distressed and anxious places the social worker under pressure to cross professional boundaries and take them with no mandate to work with them. This is ‘disguised compliance’ and I am now very wary of self referrals and assess every case carefully. Even then it is only disclosed after many sessions an involvement with a statutory agency and when there are still care and protection issues present. Because there is no referral pathway with them, the sharing of relevant information is also declined. This increases the risks for practicing social workers and the family is caught in the middle.

Re- “Because there is no referral pathway with them, the sharing of relevant information is also declined. This increases the risks for practicing social workers and the family is caught in the middle.” Exactly the point I was trying to make! Re my comment …”placed their colleagues in unfair situations and “clients” in “unwinable” situations.

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