A Reflection on Case Work: Leveraging Virtual Reality Learning for Effective Behavioral Change in Child Welfare

By Molly Tierney, Managing Director and Child Welfare Industry Lead in Accenture’s North America Public Service Practice

December 12, 2023

Six years ago, I designed a method for learning in child welfare. I was focusing on the things I worried the most about when I was an agency director: had I adequately prepared my caseworkers to, on their own, develop robust, comprehensive opinions about the safety of children while on the job? This point of view was based on a clear understanding that case workers learn through practice. Without the opportunity to practice in advance, they were learning on the backs of the families they were serving.

Virtual reality opened a whole new world. It starts with vigorously realistic experiences, putting users in households where they interact with families played by actors. Each user plays themselves and makes decisions during their visit. So, while everyone goes to the same home, they each have unique experiences.

After the headset experience, users gather to discuss their reactions. Here is where they really learn. One might say, “I made this choice because the father said this to me,” while another might remark, “Well, he did not say that to me!” This dynamic creates a container where case workers can expand the repertoire of tools they might use.

With fifteen modules now in the library, each story is intense and designed to evoke a reaction from each user. In creating them, we relied heavily on guidance from seasoned case workers, early childhood experts, and adults who had spent time in foster care. This was an important component of keeping it very real.

The most important thing to me about this work is that it is not a driver for compliance. There is ample compliance-based training in child welfare, and it is a very important part of learning. What often seems lacking is the chance to get case workers to think about how they think. To notice when their own fear, bias, or transference might be getting in the way of their ability to understand the context in which a family is operating.

Each of the fifteen modules has a learning objective specifically aimed at getting workers to think about their “how.” How do you interpret human behavior when what someone says is different from what they do? How do you de-escalate conflict when it might rise to the level of violence? How do you interpret what young children are trying to tell you before they use words to do it? How do you help a traumatized person step into healing?

This year, we tried something a little different.

Instead of playing yourself, we invited trainees to an opportunity to play a single mom with a beloved son. In the scenario, a caseworker is coming to your home to take him from you that day. During her visit, she is short-tempered, cold, and dismissive. She has information in a folder she is not sharing with you, and she often makes notes you cannot see. She provides heart-wrenching directives. Your child cries out for you.

This seemed to me a very important opportunity for caseworkers to come to a better understanding of the imbalance of power when they enter a home. They have all of it, and the mom has none of it. This is unlikely to be a very functional dynamic. I theorized that given the chance to see it from the other side, caseworkers might at least wield their authority more gently when they are in action.

What happened next was interesting. This scenario evoked stark resistance from users. The insistence that “No caseworker behaves this way” or “That is simply not how it goes.”

The challenge is, of course, that just like in every other scenario, in the creation of this one, we relied on people with experience. Moms who had caseworkers visit—many times—and who had had their children removed. Repeatedly. The stories they told were raw and honest.

There’s something interesting here about human behavior: there is a gap between the way each of us actually behave in a moment and the way we think we behaved in retrospect. The latter is the hard work of reflection and admitting to ourselves we have room to grow. Even if the behavior of the caseworker in virtual reality does not match how we believe actual caseworkers behave, it is exactly how moms experience them.

This module presents a very difficult mirror into which we could gaze if we so chose. I imagine if we mean what we say when we reference "Families First," and if we intend to partner with parents to keep far more children home where they belong, then it’s worth a hard look.

About the Author

Molly Tierney

Molly Tierney is the award-winning Executive Producer of AVEnueS Virtual Reality Learning Method, Managing Director, and Child Welfare Industry Lead in Accenture’s North America Public Service Practice, where she leverages her 25+ years of expertise to enable states and cities to improve outcomes for vulnerable citizens.

Learn more by watching “Training the Caseworker of the Future,” where Molly explains the method behind AVEnueS, or find out more by visiting our AVEnueS website.

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