Last updated: 04.07.14

Video: Sue Woolmore talks about disguised compliance

Sue Woolmore qualified as a social worker, having previously trained as a nurse, during 25 years in child protection work, Sue has held roles at local authority, regional and national level, in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Having moved into freelance work, Sue is also an independent Chair of a Local Safeguarding Children Board in Greater Manchester.


My name's Sue Woolmore and I'm a social worker by background, working in child protection in both the statutory and voluntary sector.

I spend a lot of time with practitioners and their first line managers talking about the kind of issues that they deal with when they're working with families and there is a really common one which is about how you work with families who seem to be cooperating with what you want, but you have that feeling that maybe all is not what it seems. A lot of people call it disguised compliance, it can be one of those really tricky things to get to the bottom of. Particularly because often we want families to change, we really want them to do well, so were looking for any small sign we can find that things are getting better for the family and hopefully better for the child. But there are ways in which we can discern whether this is real change or whether it is just this disguised compliance and it's not rocket science, it's not the most difficult thing but it is challenging.

One of the really important things is to be curious, so when you're spending time with families, notice things and wonder about it, wonder what that might mean and it?s tempting often not to because if you start wondering and being curious then you might find things that require a lot of your attention and a case that seems quite simple can suddenly become much more complicated, but in our hearts of hearts we are doing what we do to make a difference to children.

So it is worth being curious and wondering and having conversations with colleagues maybe over the desk in the office certainly with managers, just saying let me just run this past you, what do you think? Or, when i was there i just had this feeling, this sense and find someone who can help you unravel what some of your curiosity is suggesting to you and then you’re in a good position to start exercising some of your professional judgement, then you can start weighing up all of those things that you've seen, that you've heard, that you've sensed and try and get a picture from that and draw some conclusions from it.

Because one thing that we do know from a lot of experience is that some of the families we work with are quite complicated, well they're very complicated, they're complex and they often have within them adults who have a lot of needs. Who some may even describe as quite broken and it's very compelling to try and meet their needs, always hoping that by meeting their needs then you'll help the child, but we have to ask ourselves how long can the child wait whilst we work with the parents and there is always that temptation that whilst were focusing on the parents, we lose sight of the child and the children do become much more peripheral, they're on the edge, they can almost drop off our radar screen, so it's important in all that we're doing to be curious not just about adults but about the children. What is a day in the life of that child is like, can we put ourselves in their position and can we try and experience that with them and be curious and to wonder, to wonder about what you see and what you hear and it's amazing how much easier it can then become to make sense of what you're seeing and alongside all of this we need to talk to each other professionals, because what you see what i see might be different from somebody else and when you put all the pieces of the jigsaw together we stand some chance of working out what life is really like for the children in that family.