Virtual Reality’s Untapped Potential for Child Welfare (Contributed)

High turnover and long learning curves have impacted the ranks of skilled caseworkers. But VR technology has the ability to change the status quo and deliver active learning techniques that can speed up training.

by , / April 1, 2019

Among the many challenging, high-stress jobs in government, child welfare caseworker is near the top of the scale. The judgements and decisions caseworkers make on a daily basis have major, often life-changing impacts on children at risk. As caseloads inexorably outgrow budgets, getting better at early intervention and prevention is key to improving child welfare outcomes. Caseworker training and knowledge transfer is ripe for some reinvention by applying digital advances and design thinking, and other areas of frontline citizen services should not be far behind.

Excelling as a caseworker can take years of on-the-job experience, and the difficulty of the work drives many to leave the profession long before their confidence and skills grow to match the challenges of the job. Recent research pegs the national annual average turnover rate for child welfare caseworkers at approximately 30 percent compared to a “healthy” rate of 10 percent or less. 

By accelerating the pace of learning, and scope of caseworker awareness, virtual reality (VR) has the potential to help improve the stability of the profession as well as program outcomes. VR was first patented in 1962, and over the past decade has gradually come into common view as a gaming platform, through headset devices such as Oculus. VR is also being used and developed for medical treatment and diagnostics, physical therapy, and customer engagement among other purposes. It also has long been recognized for its potential as a collaboration and training tool, for instance for advanced engineering and graphic design. 

As production costs have dropped and capabilities have grown, the time has come for forward-looking public leaders to explore VR as a training tool for child welfare caseworkers, other types of social workers and other public service jobs characterized by long “traditional learning” curves, regular high-stress encounters, and high-stakes decision-making.

Why is VR so well-suited for training certain types of public servants? In much the same manner that gameplayers can put on a VR headset and move through a virtual interactive world, caseworkers can be immersed in life-like VR environments. Immersive storytelling and interactive voice-based scenarios in VR can help transform how such workers build, hone and practice their skills. Specifically, VR is a valuable learning tool as it can be geared to help caseworkers:

  • Assess ambiguity in home environments – VR provides exposure to high-stress situations, without real-world risk.
  • Build confidence through practice – 3-D environments can help intensify and optimize experiential learning.
  • Accelerate the pace of learning – VR can boost retention compared to traditional education methods and offers a controlled training path to systematically confront and examine challenging decision points.

Individual child welfare caseworkers often investigate multiple reports of child abuse and neglect on a daily basis, on top of filing case data and information related to reunification and placement decisions. They work for agencies facing many systemic modernization challenges, including reliance on antiquated, siloed case management systems that do not support family-centered, proactive approaches. The best caseworkers, most often, become great at their jobs through long and deep experience, working with families in difficult circumstances, gaining confidence to make tough decisions with incomplete information in high-stakes environments. 

VR is set to emerge as a gamechanger for caseworker training, as a captivating, multi-sensory, intense new way to bolster the profession, because it is based on active learning versus passive learning. A variety of studies indicate active learning retention rates often reach 90 percent, around three times higher than common rates for passive learning. On a compressed, controlled timeframe, VR active learning can thus build caseworkers’ confidence in observing, engaging and making decisions in fraught circumstances. 

VR development is advancing continually, and now has an almost cinematic visual quality and interactive capabilities that make it a valuable, cost-effective training tool for public servants in high-risk fields. It provides practitioners with a realistic but no-risk way to practice. And it provides teams and organizations with the opportunity to take such learning further in interactive sessions that build on the VR experience, pulling apart what works and what doesn’t to devise more effective, consistent, professional approaches.

Other forms of social work, public safety, and teaching are among a number of citizen service professions that look ripe for similar breakthrough training approaches using VR, extended reality and augmented reality. But child welfare casework can and should lead the way. Even as federal funds are becoming available to help states modernize their IT systems for greater efficiency, improved services and outcomes, a shift from reliance on years of on-the-job experience and passive learning to VR-enabled active learning offers a new way to build caseworker skills and improve frontline practices to drive better outcomes for the children and families being served.

Val Armbrust

Val Armbrust is North American managing director for Accenture’s child services practice. She previously led Accenture’s public sector practice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. With over 20+ years of management consulting, Armbrust's passion has been and remains public sector health and human services.

Molly Tierney

Molly Tierney leads Accenture’s VR work in child services, using service design and digital tools to help agencies improve outcomes for the most vulnerable members of their community. She joined Accenture with 25+ years’ experience in child welfare and social services at the state and local government level.

Platforms & Programs