Nuffield blog – Could Virtual Reality Technology be used to support contact arrangements for looked after children during the Covid-19 crisis?

Over the past two years virtual reality technology has started to be used in children’s social care. The social enterprise Cornerstone Partnership, part of the Antser group, has developed a virtual reality tool to help professionals better understand the impact of early life trauma. The tool has been used in over a third of local authorities in the UK to support practice in fostering, adoption, early help services and education.

More recently Cornerstone Partnership has been developing a tool to support remote working in children’s social care, to support supervision, therapy sessions, parenting support and direct work with families and children.

Now, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Cornerstone Partnership is bringing forward the next phase of development to enable the use of virtual reality to support remote contact between children over the age of 11 and their birth family, their social worker or youth worker).

It is anticipated that the tool will be particularly useful for maintaining contact between adolescents and carers/residential workers where there are placement stability concerns. It may also be particularly useful as a means of managing contact where there are ongoing familial or extra-familial safeguarding risks.

In a typical virtual reality environment (see picture right) avatars represent each of the participants. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) environments are thought to generate benefits by allowing users to step out of their real world and into an immersive, relaxing place far away from the stresses and strains of what may be happening in their living room. For some people the ability to appear as an avatar of themselves enables them to feel freer to disclose and feel less intimidated by direct eye contact.

There are 2 important anticipated benefits from the use of Avatars in place of face to face contact (whether that is online or in person) with respect to children and young people’s willingness to engage in VR based sessions. The first is the control and volition afforded to children in having the say in how they wish to appear and moreover, how they wish the other party to appear. This truly does hand power to the young person in a medium within which they are very comfortable (and in all likelihood, more comfortable than the adult they’re meeting). This assumption is reinforced from gaming industry studies that highlight the desirability and levels of comfort young people express in their attitudes to VR. The second is that for some young people – the lack of eye contact in a VR setting may be less confrontational and the absence of more subtle body language may enable young people to feel less exposed / on show leading to a greater willingness to engage in the VR medium.

A large-scale pilot of the technology across the UK is being launched to enable social care teams to put in place remote but immersive digital contact arrangements for appropriate children and families. Pilot sites can expect to go live from mid-April onwards.

For further information or to speak to the Cornerstone team directly please log an enquiry on the Cornerstone website https://www.thecornerstonepartnership.com/contact or email helen@thecornerstonepartnership.com putting “VR-Contact Pilot” in the title line.

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