Can VR give foster parents greater empathy for childhood trauma?

One of the main words that flits about virtual reality is “empathy”. From war zones to endangered forests, from blindness to epilepsy, some of the most interesting VR projects have tried to the immersive potential of the medium to put viewers in the shoes of others. These can sometimes be controversial – such as an attempt to recreate Auschwitz in VR – and some can be baffling tone deaf – such as Mark Zuckerberg’s cartoon VR tour of disaster stuck Puerto Rico.

Can VR give foster parents greater empathy for childhood trauma?

A new project from social enterprise The Cornerstone Partnership continues this nascent tradition, using virtual reality as a way for prospective foster parents to help understand the traumatic experiences children in care may have experienced.  

Partnering with tech agency INITION, Cornerstone has worked on a VR experience – called Being Me – that aims to simulate the experience of a child who has come into care. Starting from the perspective of an unborn child, the viewer is confronted with signs of domestic violence and substance abuse in-utero. From there, the viewer moves into a scene from the perspective of an 18-month-old child, also facing neglect, abandonment, substance abuse and domestic violence.

Eventually, the experience shifts into the perspective of a seven-year-old in an adoptive family. The scenario takes place after the child has been sent home from school for fighting, and the adoptive mother reacts in a number of different ways – with the intention being that the viewer can see the best ways to deal with the situation given the context of previous traumas.

“The main training in fostering and adoption relies on trying to understand what those kids have gone through to explain their future behaviour and how adopting parents can cope with it,” Dr Adrian Leu, CEO of INITION, tells Alphr. “As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”


Leu notes that there is a shortage of around 1,000 foster placements in London alone, and that the number of children coming into social care is at an all time high and growing. He calls the Being Me project a “call to action”:

“We wanted to raise awareness about this and also create something impactful that can shift minds”

“The power of VR resides in its potential for perspective shifting, in the ability to impress on the viewer the paradigm that someone else lives in. We wanted to raise awareness about this and also create something impactful that can shift minds; get people thinking more about fostering and adoption; and understand – through the eyes of the child – what they are potentially going through. This way, we can give them the power of hindsight, creating awareness and a call to action.”

CEO of The Cornerstone Partnership, Helen Costa, says the organisation believes VR can “have a major application in social care settings and in addressing a wide range of mental health issues for children”. While Being Me is a trial project, Leu seems to be keen to expand on the experience, possibly even involving other senses such as touch and smell, and potentially measuring user biometrics “that can give us a better understanding of what people are going through when experiencing such scenarios”.being_me_images_001

All of this very much hinges on the context in which the experience is delivered. Training potential parents in the possible cause and effect of childhood suffering has the scope to help humanise the process of foster care, but there is inevitably a danger of short “experiences” like these reducing the reality of complex emotional trauma. Being Me’s creators have impressed that VR tools are only part of a wider approach to training, but without proper care there’s a risk that fictional “immersion” can distort instead of accurately reflect real-life perspectives.

“There is a growing need for responsibility in terms of how the medium is used”

While the experience is intended to give viewers a greater understanding of a child’s background, Leu also emphasises that a simulation of abuse “could never fully capture the reality”. When asked about the ethical lines the project needs to contend with, he adds that serious attention is needed when considering the use of an immersive medium like virtual reality:

“There is a growing need for responsibility in terms of how the medium is used. We need to be careful because the VR medium allows the user, possibly for the first time, to experience scenarios first hand without the lens of someone else interpreting them. Hence we need to think in an ethical way about the representation of those. That is why we worked closely with the experts from The Cornerstone Partnership to present something close to reality without abusing the emotional charge.”

The good news is that both Cornerstone and INITION seem keenly aware of these issues around representation, and are treading carefully around how Being Me should move forward from its pilot stage. With a gulf in foster placements, projects such as this could do a lot of good in getting people to serious think about adoption and foster care.

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