The University of Kent has recently launched its brand new Centre for Child Protection, which they launched in London today at the London Art House, in Islington, and which is a centre at the University of  Kent offering training programmes for professionals who work within the field of child protection, which the university claims is the first of its kind.

Whilst we’re not sure about this claim (there is a Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia offering similar programmes, and which also seeks to identify best practice and help prevent child abuse and another one in Canada doing the same work), the centre is an innovative and creative place, which is at the forefront of technology and research.

The Centre for Child Protection, as we discovered listening to Professor Shemmings and Dr Reeves, who head up the Centre, is primarily a Masters training programme (MA) for busy professionals, and is a distance-learning course which is designed to be accessed on-line in a flexible way to fit around work and for all practitioners who are interested in learning more about child protection, from social workers, to lawyers, the police force and beyond.

The afternoon featured several keynote speakers, which included Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, the Vice Chancellor at the University of Kent and Fiona Harrow, the Deputy Director of the Child Protection and Safeguarding Division at the Department of Education.

Fiona Harrow talked about the Department’s interest in child protection, its concerns over the issue of neglect and desire to focus on neglect thresholds, how they are met and the variations across the country. She spoke about the department’s focus on ensuring that when mistakes are made inside the system, those mistakes are not buried but addressed and learned from, without getting entrenched in the culture of blame. Fiona also mentioned that the Department was going to be funding courses on how to carry out serious case reviews, which they hoped would become part of a more transparent approach.

Dr Shemmings then spoke about the Centre and explained that it had drawn from a broad range of resources, so that the centre could offer not only an academic and research based environment but a practical one too, so that it combined research and professional experience to give students a real feel for working in the area of child protection. He also spoke about the need to be more child-focused in practice and to avoid compassion fatigue, which can come about when professionals who work in stressful environments start to view their practice negatively and can lead to health problems as well as dangerously reduced levels of competence.

Professor Shemmings then went on to say that various aspects of the programme had been influenced by Donald Forrester.

Dr Jane Reeves then spoke about the programme and told us that the virtual game used for the training course called Rosie, was heavily influenced by the work of Dr Harry Ferguson, and that the free prototype (which we played), called Rosie 1, had been downloaded 2,500 times and each download has a feedback portion attached, so they were able to take on board several suggestions and evolve the virtual game to reflect those suggestions.

Whilst the course was very well thought out and had clearly been well invested, with a great deal of financial assistance in place to ensure that the distance learning course is cutting edge, our interest in attending the launch was  related to a progressive virtual game the university had created, for social workers, called Rosie and which is the centrepiece for their training programme. We wanted to find out whether Rosie had evolved since the last time we saw her (although, technically, we never got to see Rosie in the first game).

Rosie, which is described as a Serious Game (a game used for educational purposes rather than for pure entertainment), is a virtual role play scenario which allows students to enter a virtual home where a child, Rosie, is possibly at risk and to interact with the characters (family members) as a social worker might. There is a health worker and a social worker in the newer version of Rosie (called Rosie 2) and the game is a combination of interactive decision-making and reflective assessment. In this version, Rosie is five years older, so she is nine. (In the first version, Rosie was four).

Rosie 2 features nine-year old Rosie, whom we do get to meet and speak to this time, and the theme for this version of the game is neglect. Dr Reeves went on to explain the difficulties in defining neglect and the many variations and thresholds for the term itself, which fluctuates widely across the country. Rosie 2 has thirteen scenes and is based on research involving  experts from various fields, not just the professors at the university.

Dr Reeves went to on to say that the social worker in the game is not ‘programmed’ to use models of best practice throughout, in other words, he is not always acting or responding to his environment at the highest professional level, but at an adequate one, which, Dr Reeves explained, was designed to encourage students to interact and offer feedback to the professors, so that ideas could be explored. We were not sure why the programme wanted to seek feedback from the students in this way (notwithstanding the desire to test their knowledge and natural instincts), given that many will be new to the field of child protection, so we asked Dr Reeves and Professor Shemmings if it was possible to have access to the best way of responding to a situation within the game itself and the short answer was no. This did concern us, although Dr Reeves went on to explain that the surrounding material on the course would help to bolster the playing of the game.

The answer still left us wondering why models of best practice were not added as a supplementary feature and where in fact students could access such models on the course, especially as some students may not be able to improve on the scenarios and responses given by the social worker in the game, and some of the standard responses are still, to our mind, lacking in sensitivity – in one scene, we see the social worker ask Rosie if she feels sad. When she replies yes, the social worker moves on to talk about the possible abuser in the scenario after asking Rosie to hold off giving more detail. To our mind, that kind of response decreases trust rather than builds it – all the child hears is “I’m asking you a question about yourself, but I’m not genuinely interested”.  This was not the only feature that concerned us, though.

There was still an issue with the tone being used by both the social worker and the health visitor when speaking to the family members; it was dictatorial and heavy-handed and, we felt, highlighted why families, who may indeed need help and support, sometimes ‘retaliate’ against social workers who speak this way; it only serves to reduce trust and cause conflict. This worried us, a lot. And whist the social worker’s tone when speaking with Rosie was much softer and kinder, some of the ways in which questions were asked seemed a little too crude to be viewed as part of a truly competent performance. And as Rosie is nine in this version of the game, we were also unsure about the age-appropriate nature of the games the social worker asks Rosie herself to engage in – drawing faces for family members to describe emotions (indirect approaches to eliciting information, as we understand it) and then asking Rosie to colour them in at the end (which seemed so odd to us, given that these family members were not providing a loving, protective environment for Rosie – surely asking her to colour the faces in would be emotionally uncomfortable)?

This brings us to the technical content of the game itself. It’s incredibly hard and seriously expensive to make a virtual game fluid, seamless and flexible, so to be fair to the university the latest version of Rosie is, under the circumstances, a bold attempt at trying to create something new. The problem is, in order to get the kind of sophisticated nuance and responses in a game of this nature, the graphics and the scenarios do need to be ‘gaming style’ good and on that point, all we would say, is that we hope the Centre will invest a little more of the generous funding it receives to develop Rosie in the way it deserves to be developed.

Dr Reeves and Professor Shemmings did say that Rosie is not intended to be a stand-alone learning tool; it is intended to fit into the extensive and very thorough training programme on offer at the university, but we saw no sign of real-life role play, using actors to give students a ‘live’ feel of what it’s like going into a scenario like the one in Rosie 2, which we feel is a very necessary stepping stone in the virtual game’s evolution and indeed in the programme’s evolution as a whole.

We are sure that after reading this post, if they do at all, Professor Shemmings and Dr Reeves will rue the day they invited us, but we are not child protection experts; there are many things we have not learned about the field and we may well have made errors of judgement in our summing up of Rosie 2, and more than this, we do not want the Centre to fail, we want it to succeed and our hope is that social work will be done by those with a passion for family, in whatever shape or size they find them, and a mad-crazy love of kids. We’re just not sure that Rosie 2 is going to be able to make the impact that’s needed. But perhaps Rosie 3 will.

We would like to thank Professor Shemmings and Dr Reeves for inviting us to the launch; it was incredibly gracious of them and we genuinely wish them every success with the Centre and hope it is the start of a movement to make things better.

Stats and Facts for the Centre for Child Protection:

The Centre for Child Protection

Cost of the course: £3,700.00 per annum

Rosie 2 

Rosie 2 Packages

Serious Games Institute

PS Why do child protection experts call families, ‘clients’? What’s up with that…… can’t we just call them families……