November 14, 2017

Virtual reality shows carers neglect and abuse through a child’s eyes


We at are always on the lookout for new, innovative uses of virtual reality, especially those that are beneficial to mankind. Not every such use is without its sinister side. For example, a few months ago, we reported on the use of VR images of children combined with a plethysmograph to identify paedophiles and thus potential sex offenders. While the people conducting the research seemed quite enthusiastic about, neither we nor our readers shared the enthusiasm for such an error-prone approach to a complex subject.

However, a more positive use of VR has now come along in the form of a virtual reality video to help develop empathy in foster carers and those who wish to adopt children. The VR video is shown from the point of view of a baby in the womb and then a toddler, showing the viewer the effect of neglect and abuse on children. The video is the work of the Cornerstone Partnership, a social enterprise dedicated to helping children in care, recruiting foster carers and adopters, and training them for the challenges that await them.

By placing carers and adopters in a situation where they can see abuse and neglect through the baby’s or toddler’s eyes, it is thought that long-term empathy and understanding will be promoted. Users will also see the effect of such treatment on the brain and its long-term impact.

The video also includes a conversation between a toddler and a foster carer to illustrate ways that challenging behaviour can be approached. This is important, because foster carers sometimes volunteer for the role, in the first instance, thinking that it is all going to be plain sailing, only to be surprised later on by the challenges they face.

“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 herself 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.”

Woman wearing VR headset

The second video is more of a promotional nature, encouraging people to consider becoming foster carers and to guide them through the process, showing children in several scenarios of harm and neglect, and the difference adoption or fostering can make.

Both videos were created in consultation with social workers and child therapists. Advice was also supplied by the Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP) Network.

This new approach is aimed at filling an important function, because of an impending shortage of foster care workers. According to the Fostering Network, more than 7,000 foster families are needed in the UK over the next year.

The recruitment video has been tested in Bracknell (Berkshire), where it met an encouraging response, according to Helen Costa.

“Normally when you run events, people don’t come over to talk to you. 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.”


At the moment, the videos are passive VR, in the sense that they show the events through the headset, creating visual realism. But there is no interactive element, the user cannot control the outcome or change the direction of events. The videos are entirely linear in their presentation. Cornerstone plans to make future versions interactive, so that users can steer the course events according to their actions.

Costa believes that this use of VR in social care is only the beginning, arguing that these videos “just scratch the surface.” Currently, Cornerstone are working with Dr. Matt Woolgar, consultant clinical psychologist at the South London and Maudsley NHS trust to use VR for therapy.

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

The idea is seconded by Helen Costa, who said: “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.”

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