For the first time, Antser’s pioneering virtual reality (VR) technology has been adopted by three London borough councils to protect young people from exploitation and the risks outside of the home, otherwise known as extra-familial harm (EFH).
Figures published by the Department for Education have revealed that 12,720 children assessed by children’s social services in England between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021 were deemed to be at risk of criminal exploitation by gangs.
In London alone, 3,500 children were identified as being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs, while an additional 2,650 children were identified as being at risk as a result of child sexual exploitation.
In their commitment to reducing child exploitation, all three London boroughs – Redbridge Council, Waltham Forest Council and Enfield Council – have partnered together and are working with Antser to use VR with young people identified as being vulnerable to exploitation and who are at significant risk of EFH and their parents, carers and the professionals working with them.
Seven months into a 12-month project, Antser has trained 40 practitioners across the three boroughs assisting the teams to use VR as a tool to help bring to life the perspectives of children and young people at risk of exploitation through immersive storytelling.
The aim of the project has been twofold – firstly to increase young people’s awareness of harmful behaviour, and exploitative relationships and to open up conversations with young people about their risk of EFH.
The second aim of the project helps support parents and professionals working with children at risk to better understand and empathise with the issues facing young people and experience them from their point of view.
Between January and March 2022, Antser VR has been used 52 times in interventions conducted across Redbridge, Enfield, and Waltham Forest boroughs, with vulnerable adolescents or their parents. Of those interventions, the VR has been used 34 times directly with children at risk of EFH and 18 times with parents.
Results have revealed that 16 out of 18 parents said that they now have a better understanding of the experiences their child may be going through. An additional 13 parents said they have a better understanding of some of the dangers and risks their child may be exposed to and 15 parents said that they feel better able to talk to their children about what they are going through. Crucially, 17 out of the 18 parents said that they now felt more able to discuss how to protect/support their child with the practitioner since experiencing VR.
Responses have also shown the VR programme has had a very positive impact on practitioners in terms of improving their own understanding of exploitation. In 30 of the 34 cases where VR was used, practitioners said that it helped in discussing alternative behaviours with young people.
One practitioner commented:
“As a result of the VR programme, I feel more confident in discussing issues around extra familial harm with children and/or their parents.”
Richard Dooner, chief executive officer at Antser, said of the partnership: “Nationally, over 36 local authorities have signed up to use and implement Antser VR within its services, but this is the first time our films have been used across a tri-borough partnership.
“We are so pleased to see that our innovative VR programme has shown the power of stepping into the world of the child. By utilising technology and communication across boroughs like Redbridge, Waltham Forest and Enfield, it is showing that professionals can enter a virtual space and engage children effectively, opening conversations in a new way.
“We are thoroughly looking forward to continuing to support the three boroughs in their overall mission to deliver better outcomes for vulnerable young people across London.”
Kerstin Walby, Team Manager at Redbridge Council commented: “With the use of VR, our early intervention staff have gained an incredibly valuable tool for supporting young people and families affected by extra-familial harm.
“All of the young people and families who have taken part in the VR intervention have given positive feedback about their experiences. The VR process has enabled deeper discussion and tailored support to be provided to meet the family’s needs.”
Looking ahead to the next five months, some practitioners will continue using Antser VR with schools in a bid to promote better engagement, empathy, and decision-making for young people. In turn, allowing children to remain in protective environments to reduce their risk of exploitation.
Antser has developed hard-hitting films depicting the realities of child abuse as a part of its VR-enabled behaviour change programmes for those working within children’s services, as well as in education, health, local authorities and the police, in a bid to deliver positive change and improved outcomes for vulnerable children, adults, families and communities.