A global first: VR training and recruitment for foster carers and adopters

It’s a global world-first in VR. A project using immersive technology techniques to raise awareness of the realities of adoption and foster care in the UK is exploring how VR can help to tackle the increasing pressure on social care services. Created by The Cornerstone Partnership social enterprise, working with technology innovation agency Inition and digital services company Visyon, the project was launched to local authority sector directors and heads of service, as well as film and technology experts at an event in London’s City Hall in October 2017.

The launch featured screenings of the two immersive films created to enable carers and professionals to understand how trauma and abuse impacts children’s development and behaviour and to accelerate people’s decision to become a foster carer by allowing them to really see the positive impact they can have on a child’s life chances. Following the screenings a panel of film industry and mental health sector experts debated the potential for immersive technologies in the sector, discussing how to use VR for good to bring about change in the system.

The films will be used by Cornerstone for foster and adoption recruitment and training, and are already being rolled out by local authorities in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and Bracknell Forest Council.

“Social care is bursting at the seams and unable to properly meet demand. In children’s social care the numbers of children coming into care are at an all-time high and growing, with a majority of local authorities providing an unsatisfactory service, as judged by Ofsted.”
— Helen Costa, co-founder and CEO of The Cornerstone Partnership

It’s estimated by the Fostering Network that an additional 7,000 foster families will be needed across the UK in the coming year. London is currently experiencing a shortage of 800 to 1000 foster placements, which has significant financial and social implications and can lead to issues such as rough sleeping, which accounts for 25% of care leavers and 65% of youth offenders who have been in care.

The team at Cornerstone set out to investigate the potential benefits for health and social policy sectors of the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution, and in particular the advantages offered by VR and immersive technologies in this space. Commercial Director Katie Wilkinson explains. “We wanted to produce a piece that would complement and elevate our current training programme and bring to life key topics of shame, abandonment and impact of trauma on brain development. Our objective with these pieces is to enable the viewer to feel the topics, put themselves in the shoes of the child and experience the emotions as close to first hand as possible in order to gain true empathy with the child, and witness or experience the benefit of a different parenting technique.”

“Growing up in care can have huge societal and psychological impact with many children struggling in later life,” says Helen. By using this technology to transform behavioural change and create a greater understanding and empathy for children who have been through the care system, the aim, she explains, is to encourage more people to foster or adopt.

Building the technology

Cornertsone worked with Inition on one of the pieces launched at City Hall.  Their brief was to produce content that fitted into Cornertsones already established 3-day training course for prospective adoptive parents and foster carers, focusing on the specific issues vulnerable children encounter and designed to reinforce the course content. The message was that traumatic experiences affect children from the womb.

Using Inition’s proprietary rig to record footage in 360° and 3D, the team also recorded positional sound to add another dimension to the experience. The footage was then processed through their proprietary workflow to stitch the different camera footage together and provide the necessary post-processing and light balancing. Live 360° shots were combined with computer generated imagery (CGI) to create scenes from inside the womb and the brain.

The overall effect is a powerful one. But, as Adrian Leu, Inition CEO, explains, with that power comes a large level of responsibility and finding the balance was one of the key challenges of this project. “VR is a very powerful medium that can play with the emotional states of the viewer. The viewer is not just a simple spectator any more but more of a participant. Creators need to be responsible for the content and the story they are delivering to their audience.”

The team worked closely with Cornerstone to ensure that the visuals were powerful enough to motivate action, but did not overpower the viewer emotionally. “This whole project is a fine balance between powerful imagery, sound, camera distances and the 360° environment, represented as a realistic documentary of neglect and abuse and its consequences,” says Adrian. “Putting the viewer in a position that they have no control over makes them feel vulnerable, which is exactly what a child in this situation is experiencing.”

Clare Brasier, Cornerstone co-founder and Director of Training elaborates. “I think it’s incredibly difficult to imagine what it is like to live in a traumatic environment. I think that is what is so key about this film. To immerse oneself as an adopter, as a foster parent, to try and put oneself in the shoes of the child.”

In the panel debate on 24th October key players in this sector discussed the possible impact of these pieces and this approach.  In a cash-strapped sector with critical funding pressures, cost is also a key challenge. But Anthony Douglass, CEO for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service CAFCASS, believes that is important to develop lower cost interventions in this sector through technology, for example by using technology to save on using professionals’ time. And tech expert and lead counsel at Oculus Rift, Debbie Rosenbaum, adds that while initial up-front expenses may be large, over time the technology has the ability to significantly lower costs.

Alison Alexander, Managing Director for the Royal Borough Windsor & Maidenhead, explains that in a social care sector where the two key costs are securing child placements and providing mental health support, this project could be very beneficial. This would be achieved by enhancing training methods to make it easier to find the right placements, as well as by using technology to understand child needs to provide the correct support. She also pointed to the potential for social work training using immersive technologies.

What does the future look like?

It’s a world first for VR in this sector and early days for the project. But players in the field believe that the potential power of VR to accelerate behaviour change has important applications across child services. Dr Matt Woolgar, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, also believes that VR can help to bridge the engagement barrier, by instantly providing a connection to another life.

Adrian Leu believes this is the direction things are taking. “The power of this medium in creating awareness is not to be underestimated as we have seen from recent projects in the NGO and social enterprise sector. However, the next step is to affect behavioural change and that’s where we think things will go. This relies on deeper understanding through experiences that utilise and involve all our senses, not just the visual one. A shift in perspective will take the viewer out of their ‘paradigm bubble’ and put them in someone else’s shoes. It will also provide a new and powerful training tool for the people involved in dealing with that behavioural change.”

“You could spend years trying to teach somebody about the experience a child has had, but this is something you can watch and get in a few minutes – as long as there is the right support available to understand it afterwards,” says child therapist Anne-Marie Tipper.”

Future uses of the technology may include social interaction VR, where vulnerable children can meet their birth parents in a safe and protected environment. Immersive technology could also help children to better connect with and understand past experiences. In addition, virtual interactions could offer the ability to talk about their feelings to a simulated character or avatar rather than a potentially threatening human in a real-life setting.

“For us, this is transforming the way we do business. We think that if we get it right, it will transform the way adopters, foster carers and social workers will go about their respective roles in the future.”
— Helen Costa, The Cornerstone Partnership

Words by Bernadette Fallon

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360 Film, Adoption, CG, Cornerstone Partnership, Fostering, Healthcare, Inition, Mental Health, Social Care, Training, Virtual Reality, Visyon, VR, VR for Good