Meet Us in the Metaverse: College of Social Work Using Virtual Reality to Support Foster and Adoptive Families

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“Social Work” and “innovation” are synonymous at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work where new technologies are being utilized to engage and support foster and adoptive families.

Meeting People Where They Are

Adoption Support for Kentucky (ASK) is an award-winning program housed at the College that provides engaging trainings and inclusive peer support groups for foster, adoptive, and kinship caregivers across the Commonwealth.

In 2020, the ASK team made the pivot from in-person to online programming, understanding that participants who are homebound, have social anxiety, live in rural areas, have busy schedules, or prefer anonymity would still appreciate the opportunity to connect with mentors and peers. Meeting people where they are, when it is convenient in their schedules, can make a big difference in helping them to build better relationships and community connections.

Social Work Innovation in Action

The ASK team – through the leadership of Jay Miller, Dean of CoSW, and Lauryn Lynch, ASK Program Director – deployed a reimagined program concept using Oculus Virtual Reality (VR) headsets as a platform to better serve foster and adoptive fathers.

“The purpose of this launching this program in a new, innovative way is really two-fold,” explained Miller. “First, we wanted to come up with a way to ensure that foster adoptive parents have access to the support services they need when they need them. Second, we wanted to engage caregivers who might not typically reach out for services delivered via traditional methods. Tech is a tool that served both goals.” 

Research has shown that adoptive fathers may be hesitant to reach out for support services or perceive that services aren’t designed to meet their needs.

The first VR pilot support service group – which came to adopt the unofficial moniker of Digital Dads – launched earlier this Fall. Josh Lynch, an adoptive father of two, facilitated the group.   

“It was neat as far as us just getting to explore supports through technology because none of the dads had done anything like this before,” explained Lynch. “It was all kind of new territory as far as virtual reality space goes for us. So that was fun just navigating that together.” 

Lynch plans to continue with the group and urges other foster and adoptive parents to consider engaging in support programs, no matter the format. 

“Foster and adoption caregivers are drastically needed throughout Kentucky and the rest of the country. If you are parenting through adoption or fostering, there is support out there,” Lynch said. “You don’t have to do it alone. Technology, such as what we used for ASK, can allow caregivers to get that support and interact with others who care and want to see you and your kids succeed.”

Changing the Game with Tech

The ASK-VR program is the most recent innovation from Dean Justin “Jay” Miller’s College of Social Work eService Initiative. This initiative, which was announced earlier this year, is designed to prepare future social, mental, and behavioral health professionals to engage with — and deploy — innovative services through technology solutions.

In addition, the eService Initiative offers training for program participants to reduce barriers to tech engagement. 

“The future of service is technology,” Miller said. “If we are to actualize the promise of ensuring efficacy, efficiency, and accessibility to those in need of services, we must ensure that our workforce is prepared to use, assess and improve that tech. That is what our eService Initiative is all about. We have been extremely fortunate to engage with some great partners in making this work happen.” 

If you are a foster, adoptive, or kinship provider and want to learn more about support services, please visit our ASK Resource Center.

About ASK

ASK works to strengthen families by reducing caregiver stress and increasing parental competence through training and support groups from seasoned facilitators and trainers who have lived experiences with foster and adoptive care. These groups help adoptive and foster families form communities and create opportunities and safe spaces to discuss topics such as difficult family situations, in addition to finding solutions for addressing legal and financial issues related to caregiving.

About the UK College of Social Work 

For over 80 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work has been a leader in social work education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the College works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

For over 85 years, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been a leader in education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the CoSW works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

As the state’s flagship university, our mission is actualized through our deeds. Our faculty are renowned academicians dedicated to fostering the development of high-quality practitioners and researchers. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world.