Changemakers: Helen Costa is using VR to help adopted children feel safe

After adopting two children herself, Costa was determined to fix the problems that had made her own experience more difficult

What if you could see the world through a child’s eyes – would you change your behaviour towards them? Helen Costa thinks so. When she co-founded the Cornerstone Partnership, she had one mission: to improve the lives of families touched by the care system. But four years later, her social enterprise has pioneered the country’s first virtual-reality programme that fosters understanding between an adopted child and the adopter, used in more than 40 local authorities.

Costa, 50, worked in pharmaceuticals before landing a job in what was the Department of Trade and Industry. She moved to the London Development Agency to take the reins on science and innovation before joining Boris Johnson’s administration at City Hall to work on social policy – hers is a CV not for the faint of heart. And then she decided to adopt two children.

“I couldn’t go back,” she tells The Big Issue. “I decided that the adoption system needed some reconfiguring and looked into how the government was trying to reform it. But I just thought: ‘I’ll show you how we can do it differently’.” 

The Cornerstone Partnership started as a small project, the combination of efforts from Costa and co-founder Claire Brasier (who has since stepped away from the social enterprise). 

“We wanted to change the experience of becoming an adopter, then children being placed, then the support that you get – all of those things are core in terms of how good an experience it turns out to be,” Costa explains. “But the process is geared up just for child protection and not to help people become brilliant and comfortable parents to children who are likely to have experienced trauma. I encountered problems at every part of the system.”

After securing funding, Cornerstone officially launched in January 2015. It offered parenting training and support for adopters, plus peer mentoring. 

But Costa wasn’t satisfied that those methods helped people understand “what drives a child’s behaviour when they’re in a new house and everybody’s screaming”. She found her answer when she saw a virtual reality film made for the Alzheimer’s Society.

“It’s really hard to remember what you were taught on a training course,” she says. “But the VR was exactly what we needed. Projecting people into the world as children so they could understand the impact that child’s trauma is having in their later lives.”

Having films made for the immersive tech cost the social enterprise £250,000. Through the eyes of a child from the womb onwards, users experience abuse and neglect; then they are removed and put into care. Since 2018, The Cornerstone Partnership has been training local authorities to administer the service, enforcing a requirement that someone – usually a social worker or psychologist – qualified to deal with any potential upset is present at all times.

“If you are using it in a traditional setting – by that I mean with a family that’s struggling with a child that’s been placed – then you’re absolutely using it to recapture the empathy from the parents or the foster carers so that they stop thinking the child’s bad, the child needs to change. It resets people’s approach, reminding them it’s not because the child hates you, it’s because they have trauma that’s being triggered day in, day out.”

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The technology is also used to recruit new foster carers and adopters, helping those who are uncertain about putting themselves forward or who have been putting it off.

“Where it’s become really interesting is where it’s being used as part of an assessment to become a foster carer or an adopter,” Costa says, explaining that a person’s emotional response after using the immersive tech tells them a lot about how they would respond to the responsibility of a vulnerable child.

Costa’s pioneering social technology has branched out from the care system, too. Most recently it has been used to help the perpetrators of domestic violence understand the kind of impact their actions have on their unborn children, and to help birth mothers who are unwilling to leave violent fathers.

It has even been used in schools “to show teachers the difference between a child who’s just being naughty and a child who’s reacting because their trauma’s being triggered,” says Costa. It’s now being considered for training and supporting firefighters.

The social enterprise has moved on to the making of its next film, tackling the adolescent years. “We absolutely need to help people to manage teenagers with more kindness,” Costa says, “and how to understand what sexual exploitation looks like.

“We are working on a project that looks at youth violence and knife crime, too. It seems more important than ever.”

With more than 40 councils across the country using The Cornerstone Partnership’s immersive technology, 350 VR practitioners nationally and only 10 members of staff, the social enterprise is financially self-sustainable, though Costa acknowledges the challenge of being a start-up at a time when local authority budgets are shrinking and Brexit looms. 

“We’re purely mission-driven,” she explains. “But we can stand on our own two feet.” She hopes Cornerstone helps others do the same.

Illustration: Matthew Brazier