Prospective adopters use technology to see the reality of childhood trauma

Virtual reality technology used to improve understanding of child trauma.

VR headsets give professionals an immersive, first-hand insight into the lives of children who experience abuse or neglect. Picture: Cornerstone Partnership
VR headsets give professionals an immersive, first-hand insight into the lives of children who experience abuse or neglect. Picture: Cornerstone Partnership
  • Users experience increased empathy towards children in care
  • Programme aims to increase placement stability in care system


Immersive technology that enables abuse and neglect to be experienced through a child’s eyes is being used to increase understanding of the impact of trauma and attachment on children in care.

It forms the basis of a virtual reality (VR) programme set up by The Cornerstone Partnership, a social enterprise launched in 2015 to improve the lives of families involved in the care system.

The groundbreaking initiative aims to use VR to accelerate learning and understanding of the needs of foster and adopted children as well as providing therapeutic support to them.

It seeks to do this by generating “emotional understanding” and increasing empathy among the wide range of professionals that come into contact with children in the care system.

The VR content, which allows users to experience life from as early as an unborn child onwards, was developed at a cost of £250,000 to the social enterprise.

The films, which feature “real” scenarios, are watched using VR headsets which completely immerse the viewer in a “360° experience”.

The programme is sold to local authorities in bundles containing 12 headsets and 13 films but the partnership is currently developing 11 more pieces of content for the package.

In one such film, the viewer is allowed to experience abusive and threatening behaviour from one parent to another through the eyes of a two-year-old child.

Other clips involve older children being abused by a parent in the family home or having to comfort a younger sibling after being left alone by their parents.

The project has been designed to create more resilient adult-child relationships – with the aim that more families can be kept together – as well as reducing the number of placement breakdowns.

Cornerstone says it also wants to enhance the assessment process for potential adopters, foster carers and special guardians, by offering opportunities for “authentic responses” to the scenarios shown within the VR content.

“Initially, I thought that it could potentially put people off, especially when it came to adoption,”explains Jo Hines, service manager for placement and resources at Southend Council, one of the first councils to take part in a pilot of the VR project around two years ago.

“But it’s had the opposite impact in terms of our prospective adopters as it has made people more determined and more aware of what they are taking on.”

She says using VR in such a way reinforces issues such as pre-birth trauma, which is commonly seen in many of the children in the care system.

“Our prospective adopters are definitely more equipped [having seen the films] and keen to support a child by helping them to retrain their brain with positive experiences which is what we need from adoptive parents,” she explains.

As a trailblazer authority for the project, Hines says Southend initially rolled out the project to its senior leaders to assess their emotional responses to the VR content.

“From the very beginning, we realised how powerful it was and we found quite quickly that it had a big impact on them emotionally.

“We felt we then needed to do this responsibly and in the context of our commitment to attachment and trauma training,” she says.

A rolling programme has been implemented for the council’s social work team to ensure all members of staff are up to date with the objectives of the VR project.

“From the feedback I’ve seen quite consistently for social workers, the training provides a pause for them and reminds them why they are in this job.

“The reality of working with families that are impacted by trauma is that you can become quite desensitised because you’ve got to protect yourself emotionally,” says Hines.

She says the “power” of the VR content lies in its ability to remind all professionals working with looked-after children that they are the central focus of their work.

Hines says the council has delivered VR training not just to social workers but also educational psychologists, virtual school leaders and mental health workers.

“We’ve also shared it with our guardians within the court service as well as our legal representatives.

“They read all this paperwork about children time and again but to actually be able to put themselves in that position is very powerful,” she says.

Hines believes the VR project could prove hugely beneficial in helping schools to understand challenging behaviour among its pupils with adverse childhood experiences.

“I’m very clear that a lot of our behavioural approaches not just in schools but in society – such as reward and punishment – just don’t work with children that are impacted by trauma.

“The VR content is very useful in helping people to think about it differently,” she explains.

The council helped one school in Southend to undertake training for its 140 staff over a two-day period, including everyone from teachers to lunchtime assistants, to ensure a whole school approach was achieved.

“No matter whom I’ve shown the VR content to, the same response is that everyone should see this. Once you get the headset on someone, they become very good advocates for the project,” says Hines.


Southend is now one of around 50 English local authorities that have signed up to use the VR training with their staff.

Hines says measuring the impact of the project is complicated by the different factors involved.

“What we’ve definitely measured is that we’ve asked people what their understanding is of various issues such as trauma at the start.

“We’ve then asked them the same sort of questions at the end and their levels of empathy and insight have increased.”

She says using VR in “isolation” is not necessarily the right approach but it serves as a “great tool” to support work done with looked-after children.

In terms of placement stability, she says VR has been successfully used as part of an intervention for foster carers or adoptive families that have reached a crisis point.

“It helps to remind them what’s behind that child’s behaviour,” she says.

“If we can increase their empathy, they are more likely to feel it’s not personally directed at them. So it’s very useful to increase the stability of placements for looked-after children.”

Click here for more in CYP Now's Technology in Children’s Services Special Report

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