Virtual #reality lets #adults see #neglect and #abuse through a #child’s eyes

A new virtual reality (VR) film gives adopters and foster carers the chance to put themselves in the shoes of a child in care.

It is one of a pair of new films created by the Cornerstone Partnership, a social enterprise working to improve the life chances of children in care, to recruit and train adopters and foster carers.

One film, which will be used in training programmes for adopters and foster carers, allows users to experience the realities of being a child in care. From the viewpoint of a baby in the womb and then of a toddler, users are placed in the role of a victim of neglect and abuse, and see the impact of these experiences on the brain and how they can influence behaviour later in life. They also observe a conversation between a child and a foster carer and different ways to approach challenging behaviour.

“We have a chance to recreate the empathy people felt when they first came forward to foster,” said Helen Costa, chief executive of the Cornerstone Partnership, who has adopted two children. “I know how difficult it is to understand why children behave the way they do and to connect it to what happened in their early life. That connection took so much longer for me to make by reading and going on training courses. If I knew what I know now, I would have have avoided some of the things I got wrong.”

The second film aims to encourage people to consider becoming a foster carer and to help them move more quickly through the process by showing children in several scenarios of harm and neglect, and the difference adoption or fostering can make. 

The Fostering Network estimates an additional 7,180 foster families will be needed across the UK in the next 12 months. But as the number of children in care increases, the foster care workforce is shrinking.

Cornerstone’s recruitment film has been trialled in Bracknell, Berkshire, where early results are promising. “Normally when you run events, people don’t come over to talk to you,” said Costa. “But when people have experienced the film, people queue up to talk to us and we get into a really good conversation about what it takes to be a carer.”

The two films, created in consultation with social workers, therapists and the DDP Network, “just scratch the surface” of how virtual reality could be used in social care, said Costa.

Cornerstone plans to add interactive elements to its training film so users could, for example, direct the scene and choose the next steps. It is also working with Dr Matt Woolgar, consultant clinical psychologist at the South London and Maudsley NHS trust, to test the possibilities of using VR to deliver therapy or replace potentially damaging face-to-face contact with birth parents.

“My clinic can be a bit daunting for a young person,” said Woolgar, “so the idea of using these new media approaches is to make the therapeutic context more accessible and to build it around their interests.”

Costa is also keen to explore ways VR could be used to help children. “We’d like to use the fact that you can build whatever world you’d like and give that control to the child,” she said. “If they want to talk to a therapist who is a teddy bear, they can do that.

“Or if they want to do it up a tree or on top of a mountain, they can. We can then create a world the child is comfortable with.”