How child abusers dupe social workers

One factor common to the Victoria Climbié and baby Peter cases was the ability of each child’s carers to mislead social workers. Natalie Valios looks at the dark art of disguised compliance

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Take baby Peter’s mother, Tracey Connelly. To all intents, she appeared co-operative, with an open manner and keen to please. Two serious case reviews (SCRs) later and she is portrayed by Graham Badman, who chaired the second SCR, as an arch-manipulator, subverting the professionals, “a dominating and forceful personality”, capable of intimidation.

Badman concluded that professionals were not “adequately sceptical” of the explanations given for the maltreatment of her son: “I believe the most important lesson arising from this case is that professionals charged with ensuring child safety must be deeply sceptical of any explanations, justifications or excuses they may hear in connection with the apparent maltreatment of children.

“If they have any doubt about the cause of physical injuries or what appears to be maltreatment, they should act swiftly.”

Working subversively

Disguised compliance – as this behaviour is known – involves those with parental responsibility not admitting to their lack of commitment to change but working subversively to undermine the process. Arguably, this makes it one of the most difficult traits that a child protection social worker faces from parents, alongside hostile non-compliance and outright intimidation.

Examples of disguised compliance include cleaning the house before a visit, school attendance improving in the days leading up to a review, or parents presenting for a clinic appointment the day before a home visit.

As Lord Laming has said in the past: “They become clever at diverting attention away from what has happened to the child. People who work in this field have to recognise this in their evidence gathering. They have to be sceptical; they have to be streetwise; they have to be courageous.”

Tick a box

But this can be easier said than done, says Sue Woolmore, the NSPCC’s local safeguarding children board adviser. As a former child protection social worker in a family centre setting, she often encountered difficult-to-engage parents using disguised compliance because their main aim “was to get us off their back”.

“They picked up quickly on what they needed to do to reduce our involvement,” Woolmore recalls. “For example, if we’d said that the level of hygiene in the house was so poor that we were concerned for their children, then they would clear up just before a visit. That would tick a box for us.”

When resources are tight there is the temptation that, if the family has jumped through a few hoops like this, services will be withdrawn. But that tickbox strategy can collude with disguised compliance. And when this is combined with professional optimism – social workers want families to comply, so they look for that – there’s a higher chance services will be withdrawn.

Speedy assessment

The potential for this to happen is exacerbated by the fact that an initial assessment of a family must be completed in seven days, which often gives practitioners too little time to determine whether they are given the full picture. In addition, collecting and storing information on electronic records with tick boxes discourages narrative and context.

Serious case reviews often pick up on disguised compliance, non co-operation or intimidation as themes. The biennial analysis of SCRs in England for 2005-7 found that three-quarters of the 40 families involved did not co-operate with services. Patterns of hostility and lack of compliance included: deliberate deception, disguised compliance and “telling workers what they want to hear”, selective engagement, and sporadic, passive or desultory compliance. It added that good parental engagement can sometimes mask risks of harm to the child.

Victoria Climbié is a case in point. During the inquiry into her death, it emerged that when social worker Lisa Arthurworrey visited the eight-year-old at her great aunt’s home, everything appeared “perfectly normal”. But Carl Manning, who was convicted with great aunt Marie Therèse Kouao of her murder, confirmed that, before the visit, the flat had been cleaned specially.

Arthurworrey ‘set up’

Arthurworrey told the inquiry that she realised later that she had been “set up” during the visit, and that Manning and Kouao had presented a positive image to mislead her, complete with toys scattered on the floor. Manning admitted that Victoria, who was playing with a doll during the visit, had been coached on how to behave.

The one thing Arthurworrey did notice was that Victoria’s face was heavily moisturised with cocoa butter. But, because a paediatrician had misdiagnosed some of her abuse injuries as scabies, Arthurworrey assumed Kouao had applied it to reduce scarring. More likely it was to hide evidence of abuse, just as baby Peter’s face and hands were smeared with chocolate to disguise injuries.

The upshot was that Arthurworrey and the professionals who came into contact with baby Peter only saw what Kouao and Connelly wanted them to see.

Tendency to be over-optimistic

Both tragedies represent examples of the effect of “a tendency to be over-optimistic”, says Judy Jones, policy officer for Peterborough safeguarding children board. “We are in the business of hoping that our interventions will lead to positive change and that children will be safer,” she says.

After an SCR a few years ago, Peterborough safeguarding children board was sparked into putting together guidance for staff working with hostile, non-compliant clients or those using disguised compliance. “It was evident that, although on the face of it we were confronted by parents who appeared to be conforming to the plans, they weren’t,” says Jones. “We were being lulled into a false sense of security that things were moving in the right direction.”

As the guidance points out, if disguised compliance is missed, the consequences can be worrying: cases can drift; risks may increase; and workers may fail to recognise issues of concern, misinterpret vital information and lose interagency communication.

What can practitioners do?

So what can practitioners do to avoid being duped? “It’s a challenge for professionals to take a step back and question whether they are seeing the whole picture,” says Woolmore. “To do that, you need good supervision and insightful reviewing officers who ask the right questions.”

But there are questions practitioners can ask themselves too. Have things changed for the child? Are professionals from the different agencies seeing the same picture? And if you step back for a while and return, have the changes been sustained?

“Practitioners can be distracted by the complex needs of the adult – for example, if substance misuse, domestic violence, or debt are involved,” says Woolmore. “But this could also be being used as a smokescreen. So think about what a day in the life of this child is like and that can help in discerning what is going on.

“When something stands out in an instinctive way, listen to it.”

Indicators of disguised compliance

● No significant change at reviews despite significant input.

● Parents/carers agreeing with professionals regarding required changes but putting little effort into making changes work.

● Change occurring but as a result of external agencies’ efforts/resources, not the parents’/carers’ efforts.

● Change in one area of functioning not matching change in other areas.

● Parents/carers only engaging with certain aspects of a plan, and aligning themselves with certain professionals.

● A child’s report of matters conflicting with that of the parents/carers.

Further information

An extract from Peterborough LSCB’s guidance on disguised compliance

Understanding Serious Case Reviews and their Impact: A Biennial Analysis of Serious Case Reviews 2005-7

Executive summary of the second serious case review into the death of baby Peter

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