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.”
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.”