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Disguised compliance


This is a case where a Judge was critical of the Local Authority’s use of the phrase “disguised compliance”.  I know that it is a phrase that sometimes puts hackles up

Pink Tape sums up very well just how annoying some people find the phrase  – though her particular issue is that it should be “disguised non-compliance”

(I’m going to suggest in this piece that the problem is not the phrase or the concept, it is throwing the label around when there’s no evidence that it is happening. It is when people just assert that it has happened without going to the bother of proving it with evidence.   It is a similar sort of effect when people describe a child’s description of abuse as a “disclosure” rather than an “allegation” – because the former implies that the child must be telling you something true, and the latter is a more accurate description of the account of abuse until such time as a Court makes decisions about whether it happened)



Disguised compliance is a recognised phenomenon in child protection, and one that frequently comes up in Serious Case Reviews , it is generally defined 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.

Click to access factsheet-disguised-compliance1.pdf


So it can be a real thing, and it can be a real problem that professionals need to be aware of.  Professionals failing to spot the difference between a parent who has genuinely changed and is trying their best and one who is trying it on, have ended up with children who were seriously harmed or worse.  It was, for example, a major feature in the Victoria Climbie Serious Case Review, also in the Peter Connolly one.

A sceptical enquiring mind is appropriate – the mind should be open to both possibilities and assess the evidence.

The difficulty, of course, is the differential diagnosis – a situation could be disguised compliance, or it could be a parent genuinely doing everything that they are being asked to do.

If for example, a Local Authority say to a mother, we want you to separate from father and not have contact with him, and allow us to make unannounced visits and improve the home conditions, there are instances where this is exactly what the mother does and that’s positive evidence of change and a good indicator for the future. However, there are cases where the parents pretend to have separated and see each other secretly and everything on the surface looks the same as the mother who has really made those changes. The latter would be disguised compliance. Someone pretending to have changed, but not having really done it.

The issue, of course, is that simply looking at a parent and labelling what they are doing as “disguised compliance” is an allegation – that the parent is not really changed and is not trustworthy. And if you are as the State making an allegation, then the burden is on you to prove it, and you have to provide evidence to that effect. Simply labelling someone’s behaviour as “disguised compliance” is not sufficient.

If a parent is doing everything that you have asked them to do, then you can’t simply undermine that by saying “Ah, but it is just disguised compliance”    – that’s like having your cake and eating it. The LA seem to be in a position of being able to criticise someone for not doing what they were asked to, but also being able to criticise them for doing it.  Obviously, if there’s evidence that someone’s attitude and insight has not changed, or that they are not actually doing what they claim to be, that’s a different matter – depending on the evidence.

It may well be very sensible to have in mind that a given set of facts could be genuine change or it could be disguised compliance, and to assess the situation and check how you are monitoring, but if you can’t provide the evidence that what the mother is doing is disguised compliance, you cannot just write all of the observed changes off by saying that’s what it is. The law, and the Courts, work on evidence, not mere suspicion or speculation.

DV (Adoption or Rehabilitation) 2016


The Local Authority repeatedly use a phrase critical of the mother when they say that she has engaged in ‘disguised compliance’. It may be that their terminology is loose, but I find that it is not supported by any recent evidence. Indeed, the social worker is happy to praise the mother’s engagement and was positively enthusiastic about the counselling which was underway. Certainly, the children’s guardian was rejecting of the criticism implicit in the phrase ‘disguised compliance’. The guardian told me that the mother now recognised the need for change, she wanted to change, she had fully engaged with everything that had been offered, and she was in the process of change. 



The Judge, having heard all of the evidence in the case was satisfied that the mother genuinely had separated from the father, and had learned from her mistakes and was working genuinely to make and sustain changes, and therefore refused the plan for adoption – the child was returned to the mother’s care.


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

23 responses

  1. “Until death do us part” swear the loving couple in the Church .Like many couples their life of bliss is punctuated with two or three furious rows with a lot of screaming and shouting and police being called by irritable neighbours.The wife falls pregnany and that is where the social services ( “SS”) step in.There is a risk of emotional abuse to your unborn child they say so you must separate from your husband if you want to keep your baby !
    “You are telling us to break our solemn marriage vows?” say the couple .You must choose between your husband and your child explains a “helpful” social worker so of course the mother chooses her baby and promises to cut off contact with her husband.Love being what it is however sooner or later she breaks her agreement with the “ss” and not only contacts her husband but allows him to stay overnight ! For such “innappropriate behaviour” the “SS” get an emergency protection order when the baby is born so the child is taken into foster care, and this is followed by an interim care order issued by a family court judge who nods approval when he hears the evidence of “risk of future emotional abuse”followed by the “bad faith and deception” on the part of the parents whose legal aid solicitors and barristers advise the couple to “go along with social services as they know what is best for the child;
    Subsequently an adoption placement is arranged by the same judge and the distraught couple receive the same advice to “cooperate” from the same team of legal aid lawyers;
    Lastly the hapless child is adopted by strangers who may or may not turn out to be adequate parents while the real mother and father mourn the parting of the baby they will never see again…………………………….

    • Like many couples they have two or three furious rows that lead to the police being called?

      There’s a valid point about whether what you describe would actually meet threshold, and whether it would lead to the consequences you describe, but you do rather undermine that by considering that it is a normative experience to have the police called out to a row you are having with a partner.

      What you have described absolutely wouldn’t justify an EPO, on the account that you have given, nor an ICO, nor adoption. There would have to be substantially more to it than that. If those were the full facts as determined by a Court, the consequences you describe would not happen.

  2. The above story or very similar versions of it is repeated again and again in our family courts to the utter shame of an appalling system and all those who work for it or uphold it .

  3. Yes I loathe the word “inappropriate” but sadly it is in general use around the world. It tells nothing about the problem and to me it sounds sniffily supercilious. But I caught myself saying it the other day,

    Another one is “failing to prioritise the child’s needs”. There’s often a missing link between a given behaviour and this conclusion.

    The real problem with all these is that they are superficial and just don’t explain or describe what is happening. The cause is usually lack of time to sit down and think through.

    Actually the expression that really annoys me for all the above reasons is “Season’s Greetings”.

  4. SWs need to chill out a bit and understand that not everyone lies. Great result kids life now not to be ruined.

  5. I agree, it is actual compliance if you can list all the things the SW is asking the family to do and they are doing it. That there are other features of a case that mean they aren’t complying need to be evidenced. Signs of Safety does this well I think, the things people are doing that have been asked of them are the things that are working well, the worries and what needs to happen are the things they may not be. SW should tell families exactly what they need to happen in terms of change and it isn’t a phrase I would use in a statement or report. I don’t think report or statement language should have to be interpreted for a family.

  6. I think you are trying to apply the term ‘disguised compliance’ to cases in the past when there was no evidence that this was a factor in their SCRs. The term did not have an influence on the way the cases of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connolly were managed at the time.

    In the case of Victoria Climbie Haringey avoided using their section 47 powers, partly due to the influence of political correctness, when there was strong evidence she was an abused child. In the case of Peter Connolly Haringey was naive in having a narrow focus on ‘social work support’ and there was no evidence that social workers understood their child protection role or tried to establish a proper collaborative working relationship with the mother. In both cases, social workers did not understand their legal powers and consequently did not even try to test out whether real compliance was possible.

    I agree that ‘disguised compliance’ may now be used inappropriately. However, it can be useful when social workers go the extra mile to work constructively with parents and eventually realise that little has changed. This term might be helpful in understanding the reasons for this.

    • Dear Hilary

      Fair point. I was using the NSPCC guidance, where they specifically cited both of those cases as examples of it as part of their practice guidance to professionals (the link in the piece), but thinking over it again and the issues you raised, I think the problems were much wider than that.

    • & Haringey didn’t get good legal advice which would have meant that they did understand their legal powers.

      • Helen, that may be a good excuse in the Connolly case, but not in the Climbie case – because social workers never seek legal advice over the use of their s 47 powers. Social work is the lead profession regarding s 47 enquiries and good practice should be embedded in the organisational structures and procedures of children’s services. I agree that when care proceedings are being considered social workers need good legal advice.

        I expect social workers employed to carry out child protection duties to have a sound grasp of the extent and limits of their legal powers – without this knowledge they do not deserve to be called a ‘profession’. Obviously, there is always an element of uncertainty about how to interpret the law but some social workers do not even have the necessary legal mindset – about ‘evidence’, for example.

      • Hilary, it wasn’t an excuse it was a comment, on just that case. Your experience of SW and the law is not mine but we have been here before. Mine is of SW well versed in the law as it applies to their practice, anything else lies in the need to for the SW profession to seek advice from the legal profession. Neither do think it fair to say SW “never” seek advice over their S47 powers. SW have very little power, lead agency or not, they can only investigate and rarely is this as a single agency.

      • The legal advice bit is interesting. From my reading of the Serious Case Review, they were advised that threshold was not met. Which was wrong. But if what they meant was “you won’t, on the medical we just obtained which said that the bruises were not more likely than not to be non-accidental injury, get the Court to give you an Emergency Protection Order” they’d have been spot on. (blurring of terms is deeply unfortunate. Threshold means that the Court can theoretically make an order and have legal jurisdiction to do so, but “threshold” here probably meant, will the Court actually give you the order? The last 8 years might have been very different indeed if Haringey had made their application and it had been refused as it inevitably would have been)

  7. I agree that when neighbours call police because of the row next door that is not the norm for most couples;Nevertheless show me a couple who have been together 5 years or more and never had a Noisy row and I will show you two liars.
    It is outrageous when bossy social workers blackmail couples into breaking their “until death do us part” marriage vows by threatening them with the forced adoption of their baby by strangers if they refuse to split up.
    Their motives for this are clear;It is much easier to attack a woman on her own rather than one who is supported by a man.Once the couple have been successfully forced to split up the wife is told to give up her job to look after the children full time ,she then cannot pay the rent and finds the children in care ,the younger ones adopted and herself in the street wit no husband ,no children,and no home.
    This delghtful scenario is played out again and again and will continue to occur until social workers pick on criminals instead of law abiding citizens.

    • There are no threats to adopt children because people can’t split up, in cases of DV it is better if parents separate, so children aren’t at risk. Those are not law abiding citizens & it doesn’t mean their child is adopted.

  8. Pingback: Disguised compliance | Children In Law | Scoop...

  9. There seems to be agreement here that the judge was right to reject the LA application on the basis of misuse of the term ‘disguised compliance’. This has serious implications for practice because it is often used in child protection training. I get the impression that ‘disguised compliance’ is often used in an imprecise way.

    I welcome training that encourages optimism about what social workers can achieve, while keeping in mind the need for ‘respectful uncertainty’ about the meaning of what they see and hear. Essentially, social workers are employed to assess needs and deliver services whilst also assessing the level of risk and ensuring the necessary action to protect the child. Throughout their work they need to have a reasonably clear idea of what is wrong, what needs to change and how this might be achieved. If there are any doubts about compliance it may be necessary to have a written agreement with parents – so parents are very clear about what they are required to do, or not do. In other words, there should be much more emphasis on the responsibility of social workers to communicate their concerns clearly and less on the alleged misunderstanding on the part of parents.

    • Yes, I think the objection here was due to imprecision and being unable to evidence it, not that the theoretical concept of evidenced disguised compliance is discredited.

      • But important lessons must be learned about ‘disguised compliance’ from the judgment by Judge Duggan.

        The two risk factors still present in this case are: the risk of of mother getting into another relationship with a man who then becomes violent plus her pregnancy and the uncertainties about her capacity to care for two young children as a single parent. I was arguing (in general, as well as in this case) that in future it would be better if there was a written agreement with the mother about how these risks could be kept to a minimum. It seems to me that the delicate issue of whether she is permitted to seek a new relationship remains too difficult for the judge to comment on – although he does mention the risks to a child of her bringing home ‘strange men’! This will obviously be an ongoing concern for social workers because, if she does get into another abusive relationship, there will certainly be risks to the children.

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