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How VR software can give you the benefit of hindsight

By Andrew Pirie

Last year, the Cornerstone Partnership conducted a thorough pilot trial, featuring 30 councils and care organisations with more than 500 professionals. The trial was to determine if virtual reality (VR) could improve the life chances of children in care and children who have experienced attachment-related trauma. The results were clear; 91% of participants believed that VR can change the perspective of carers and adopters, whilst 85% believed that the use of VR could help them to make quicker decisions. A staggering 72% said that they would do things differently as a result of the training whilst six out of ten social workers felt that they had increased their own understanding of the experiences and feelings of children.

We were extremely excited when we were invited by CEO Helen Costa to visit the Cornerstone Partnership’s offices in London to try this new software for ourselves. After all, how effective could a simulated computer scene really be?

With minimal experience of virtual reality software, it was with trepidation that we each put the headset on. To help us adjust to the 360-degree experience, we were suddenly transformed to the plains of Africa where a herd of elephants walked calmly towards us. The experience was certainly surreal; wherever we moved our heads the scene was all-encompassing. Sales Director Charles Hamilton had warned us that it really would “isolate the senses” and he was right – it was hard to believe that we were sat in a central London location!

The Cornerstone Partnership currently has a set of 12 videos which are designed to help professionals understand the real impact of childhood trauma. Each video varies in length from three to seven minutes, and each video gives you a powerfully immersive experience of what life is like for an abused child. Users can gain an in-depth insight into an abused child’s development, starting from in utero, through to the early years and school years, which helps them to understand situations from the child’s perspective. The result was undeniably powerful; there were times when we naturally gasped out loud and grabbed hold of the seat in shock at what we were seeing. In fact, the videos are so powerful that before we began the test, Helen had to issue a warning that these videos can, in fact, be a trigger for some professionals. 

Having viewed two separate videos, one which was aimed as a recruitment tool for potential foster carers, and one which is designed to be used by professionals, we sat down with both Helen and Charles to find out more about how social workers can take advantage of this exciting new software. 

Your virtual reality software is a ground-breaking method of allowing social workers and prospective foster parents to understand life from the perspective of a child. How was the technology developed to support the adoption and fostering process?

We’re incredibly proud of the video content that we’ve developed and we’re continually working on plans to increase our video library. We’re actively trying to have more stakeholder input into future content; we want to be speaking with academics, professionals, law enforcement and even central government. We have this fantastic tool which 

can be used to address specific issues, so it’s vital that we focus upon the topics that resonate, and which can make a difference. These videos need to actively change beliefs and behaviours, so it’s important that we get them right. 

Our VR kit is a tool which can be used to get across someone’s experience in a safe environment. It allows people the benefit of hindsight as they can literally see how one experience can shape an individual. Therefore, we want to tackle contextual safeguarding; it’s about where things lead and from a foster parent perspective it could give a sense of help to handle other behaviours. There are so many issues we could explore with this technology; for instance, knife crime, CSE, county lines. The possibilities really are endless.

We see this technology as a way of connecting with teenagers and young people by giving them the benefit of hindsight in a safe, controlled environment. Imagine if a young person is considering going out with a knife; we can show them where that path leads and what that outcome could be, without them going through with it. It could help them understand how decisions have consequences, and the interactivity of this kit would help them to fully understand the implications of those decisions. 

In our view, the headset is about starting conversations and explaining what children are thinking. It’s a new interactive style of media and feedback has been incredibly positive so far. What’s particularly exciting is that we can work with so many people to discover what the next layer of content should be – we’re always open to contributions from social workers if they feel that there is a subject which should be tackled.

During your pilot trial, you helped 30 different local authorities to deliver VR interventions. What have been the biggest barriers to encouraging teams to utilise this software?

We’ve been incredibly impressed with the impact of the software to date. Now, we have nearly 40 different local authorities signed up for our headsets and it’s been interesting to hear how different teams have had different experiences.

What we have noticed is that if the local authorities have someone in a learning and development role with an interest in technology (perhaps a Director of Service or a CEO) then the process is a lot smoother. There’s still a perception that virtual reality is a gimmick, and often people don’t necessarily see the potential of using the headset as a tangible learning tool. But there is a strong learning element at play, and we’re fascinated by how different councils are using these kits in different ways.

There is no rule book for how the headsets should be used. Everyone has a personal reaction to viewing the videos; for some people, they may be much better viewing in a quiet room where they can have an in-depth conversation afterward, whilst others may use the headsets as a conversation starter. We know that some authorities have used the headsets successfully at events which are designed to boost fostering recruitment, whilst others have found that the videos are so hard-hitting, it’s almost the opposite effect. They’re scared that the videos could put potential foster carers off. It’s a delicate balance. 

As we develop more content, there’ll be much more room to use the kit in various ways. The technology is only as good as the content library and we’re working hard to add more video content. 

You offer a Trauma Aware Service (TAS) which is specifically designed to help schools and educators understand childhood trauma. How have schools responded to this availability?

It’s an unfortunate statistic that you’re five times more likely to be excluded from school if you’re living within the care system. It’s critical to keep these children in school as they’re more likely to be involved in grooming, exploitation or end up in a custodial setting. 

With the VR software, the teachers had the strongest reaction as in a reversal of their behaviour. The machines have been described as an “empathy machine” and it’s because you can really understand what that child has been through. For example, if a child mentions that “daddy is always shouting” then your own perception of this statement may be based upon just a loud voice. But if you’ve witnessed “daddy shouting” from the perspective of an abused child, and could see exactly how intimidating it could be, you really would change the way you react. 

We’re also interested to hear about your dedicated VR trauma awareness training for the legal profession. How did you identify this specific need and how has the feedback been from legal teams who tested it? 

This work has come from our contact with local authorities. Our feedback to date has been primarily anecdotal, with many judges simply saying “wow.”

Within the family courts, there is a reluctance to take children into care, even if the social workers feel that the situation warrants it. This software can sway a judge from thinking about how they can “fix” problems and help them to understand the actual context of what is happening. Often the judges making the decisions don’t necessarily understand what impact neglect can have on a child – using our VR software can be a real “aha” moment for them. 

We know that neglect is one of the hardest traumas to recover from. It’s damaging as the child will feel completely worthless, and this changes their internal script which sets the tone for their future. If you feel worthless, you have no value to anyone and its difficult to make meaningful connections. This isn’t understood properly and it's impossible to get this across until someone watches a video like this. The choice that the judge makes is based on a more accurate understanding of what the report means, which leads to a different outcome and more informed decisions around matching. 

Equally, it’s just as relevant if you’re a social worker specialising in special guardianships. It can be easy to want children to stay within their family where possible, but there is a temptation to exaggerate the potential of that person’s ability to care for the child. Giving them this VR headset means that the potential guardian can recognise if they have been through a similar experience and understand if they are the right fit for the child. 

In our view, the real benefit of this technology is that it gives a realistic view of the person’s strengths as well as identifying areas where they could struggle. With this additional knowledge, it’s much easier to identify whether the placement is likely to succeed. 

What are the costs involved for local authorities or individual practitioners interested in investing in the VR software? 

We have two options available; we can work with entire teams to supply multiple headsets, or we can work with individual social workers, enabling them to become fully certified practitioners. 

Our individual package costs £3,750 per person. This cost includes full training, certification for a year, the full video content, the physical headset and backup from our team. We’re incredibly careful about who we allow to use our software because the videos can be a trigger for some people due to the harrowing content. We ensure that our practitioners are fully certified before they can take it away. 

On a team basis, we offer an entry-level package for £30,000 per year. This includes 12 headsets, and full certification training for 12 social workers, making it the ideal choice for teams. As well as offering the full video library and headsets, we ensure that each team can have an additional six days per year where we can work with them on any events that they may be hosting. We bring along additional headsets (if required) as well as helping to demonstrate the true value of virtual reality. Our feedback has told us that these events are often invaluable in demonstrating to executive teams exactly where the money is being spent. It allows them to “do something” and experience something that they haven’t seen anywhere else. 

To find out more about Cornerstone Partnership and their VR software, you can visit their website or alternatively you can call on 01628 636 376.