How virtual reality can help give social workers, adopters and carers new insight into child abuse

Pilot of virtual eality training puts adopters, foster carers and social workers into the mind of an abused child

What people can see through the virtual reality headset. Photo: Cornerstone

You could be forgiven for thinking that after adopting nine children over the past 27 years, Sue Clifford has seen it all in terms of training for working with vulnerable young people who have experienced abuse and trauma.

But she had never tried virtual reality (VR) until a new Restorative Caring pilot by the Cornerstone Project was launched. The pilot programme, currently in its first wave of partnerships, puts adopters like Sue and foster carers and social workers in the mind of a child as they experience abuse and neglect.

The case scenarios differ from a child being yelled at in a rundown living room, to a child in the womb living with domestic abuse and scenarios for how a foster carer can successfully support a child. As well as seeing the scenarios play out, the VR experience allows you to see how a child’s brain is reacting to the events they are witnessing.

Clifford, despite nearly three decades of experience, found the experience “shocking”.

“It becomes much more real,” she explains. “You can talk about abuse, the words fall glibly off the tongue and you can kind of imagine what it might be like, but to actually experience it, it is much more real.”

She says she found the experience invaluable when going forward with her children.

“It gives you a different perspective in looking at when they are struggling with behaviours, when they are throwing challenges at you, when they’re not listening to you…You can stand in their shoes and say: ‘If I had been through what they have been through, how would I feel?”

Sue adds: “It enables you to connect with them better and stand alongside them. Yes, you need to be the parent, but you also need to understand what these experiences are and why these behaviours are coming at you.”

The ‘bigger picture’

Dena Charles, a senior practitioner at Bracknell Forest’s Family Placement Team says the experience was “extremely emotive” and allowed her to be immersed in the child’s environment.

“It also allows you to see the “bigger picture” — visually see the conditions a young person can be living in.”

“As a Skills To Foster Trainer I am definitely more confident in speaking to potential carers about what a child can experience before they are born, and how these experiences may impact on their behaviour. Potential carers often believe caring for a new born is an easier option than caring for an older child who has already experienced neglect at home and this may not always be the case.”

Jeanette Crotch, a foster carer for the past three-and-a-half-years who has cared for 15 children, shares similar sentiments of the training.

“During other training they try to get you to look at it through the view of the child but its very difficult to do that just by somebody telling you how a child might be seeing something.”

She says in one of the VR experiences, which involves an adult man yelling at the child, “a lot of us in the room were trying to pull away, that’s how realistic it felt”.

“Lots of people in the room were in tears, even social workers that have been social workers for 15 to20 years. It really did strike them.”

‘Valuable’ training

Charles adds the training could be valuable for students: “It could give them the opportunity to be more prepared for visiting homes where children are at risk. Students could also discuss their feelings in the safety of a tutor group and it would help them to identify the risks and strengths of the virtual child’s situation before having to deal with a live situation.”

Clifford says the understanding it gave her of a child’s experience would have made her more prepared throughout the time she has spent adopting, and would do the same for others.

“I see it a lot with parents coming forward to adopt, there is still this feeling: ‘I know a lot of children will have been abused/neglected, but that won’t be my child, my child won’t have been through that.’

“They are still coming at it with rose-tinted glasses, and then when they get the child the reality hits. I think if they had done the training in advance of that it would help them have that understanding of what it feels like to be an abused child.”

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10 Responses to How virtual reality can help give social workers, adopters and carers new insight into child abuse

  1. londonboy February 8, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

    Would you be able to explain who designed this virtual reality – How adopted children or children in care or families were involved please? I’m keen to understand whose reality this portrays.
    Words like ‘run-down’ make me nervous – they imply a ‘class -divide’ around income hence my question.

  2. londonboy February 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm #

    I’ve seen the NSPCC fund-raising ( for them) ads that seem to come from the same perspective so it would be helpful to clear up unanswered questions about who produced these materials and why
    Many thanks

    • Tracey February 8, 2018 at 1:34 pm #

      It is a good question londonboy. Too easy to stereotype families in difficulties and minimise the complex emotions of children within them. Perhaps this training could be used more with families to help them see their children’s perspective??

  3. londonboy February 8, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

    There is a place for materials like these if they are produced to explain one persons reality to another and the work is carried out ethically / by independent academics.

    Personally I believe it would be very helpful if sim. materials were produced showing the impact on families when there are s47 investigations or a child enters care under s20. I believe I know a number of people who would be very interested in working with researchers to produce these

    Many thanks ( Response awaited )

  4. londonboy February 8, 2018 at 1:46 pm #

    Well there are some answers here –

    Wonder how many of these LAs have endorsed these materials and are happy putting their name to this? virtual reality in the womb and so on?

  5. londonboy February 8, 2018 at 6:21 pm #

    – and we are told this is in children’s and families interests? I think not.

  6. Rebecca Curley February 9, 2018 at 12:50 pm #

    Thank you for your comments. The films have been produced independently by us (The Cornerstone Partnership) in consultation with children in care and who have been through the care system, adopters, foster carers, therapists, DDP specialists, clinical experts, directors of children services, social workers and directors expert in the field of filming in 360. The library of films are not for general release but are part of a carefully constructed pilot programme that is being independently tested and evaluated. The films are part of our training into Restorative Care. Feel free to get in touch if you would like to arrange a meeting to view the films and see how it can be used to support any work with families in the care system. 01628 636376.

  7. londonboy February 11, 2018 at 7:24 pm #

    Thank you
    This material portrays a very ugly picture that all parents of children who enter Care are neglectful and abusive. Nowhere was the point made that children enter Care for lots of reasons often to do with poverty and or illness and the lack of resources to address these.

    I spoke to the chair of an adopters and special guardianship group about this film in the interim. She was pretty horrified and would have preferred a film that showed the results of abuse and its impact on a child and family as this is verifiable unlike “virtual reality”.

    Her main point was false narratives create distrust and this is bad for children.

    I’d go so far as to say if a film was produced like this about any other group it would be a hate crime.

  8. Rebecca Curley February 12, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    Hello, happy to talk further about this and our mission if you would like to contact me directly at or call 01628 636376.

  9. londonboy March 7, 2018 at 1:16 pm #

    If this material is being independently evaluated the no doubt this point will be made:-

    what research entails (respectful engagement) and where ‘bias’ sits –

    ‘Probably more bias: (red light) be wary of research into any intervention carried out by those who stand to gain by its success, whether financially or in reputation. Research that has been privately funded by a company selling a particular intervention approach, or a charity that devised it, is likely to be biased. Where research is commissioned or undertaken to answer questions of health policy or social policy, check out the background of the research. Regardless of who carried out or paid for the research, beware of any report of findings which aims to score points for a particular political position or personal opinion. Where research findings are used in media reports to make a particular case, check out whether it is really evidence that is being reported or simply opinion and distorted evidence.’