RCMP Victim Services in Red Deer, Alta., has a new staff member and he's only two feet tall.
Since last winter, the unit's been using a robot named Ard-E to reduce anxiety in young victims of crime when they prepare for police interviews and court proceedings.
Interacting with the free-moving robot has proved to be a great distraction for children who find the police and court experience overwhelming, says RCMP Cst. Nicole Quick.
"They're in a new environment with a bunch of strangers and they know they're going to have to talk about the most terrible things they've ever experienced," says Quick, who manages the unit. "Anything we can do to make that easier on them is a good thing."
With child-like humour, Ard-E engages with children by freely walking around, telling stories, singing, dancing and doing calming exercises such as deep breathing and Tai Chi. Blinking, turning its head toward motion and asking and answering questions make it seem like it's interacting.
Ard-E is programmed to say and do things that build trust with the child and convey information about the court process such as "It's OK to ask to repeat a question," "I get butterflies in my tummy, too," and "You can ask for a glass of water."
Everything it says or does is based on cognitive-behavioural strategies that help children relax and build trust, according to Dr. Tanya Beran, a child psychologist and professor at the University of Calgary.
"When the robot is teaching children in a playful way where it doesn't look like they're trying to teach them anything, they really connect with that and the information sinks in," says Beran, who worked with Quick to design Ard-E's police-specific dialogue.
In 2014, Beran started buying the robots from a company in France and reselling them in Canada. She programs each one with cognitive-behavioural strategies used to comfort children.
The Alberta Children's Hospital has four of Beran's bots. It was the first in the world to use one for pediatric care at the bedside.
The hospital uses the bots to manage negative emotions in children before, during and after medical procedures.
"We're dealing with fears of the unknown," says Jackie Pearson, a children's life specialist at the hospital whose job is to make medical experiences positive for kids and their families. "By introducing play, the robot can help patients feel calm and help us communicate in a more playful and reassuring way."
Though the robot helps most patients relax and keep their mind busy during medical procedures, Pearson says she has seen particularly good results with children on the autism spectrum.
In Red Deer, the robot has been an effective distraction technique and a good alternative for kids who aren't comfortable with a therapy dog, according to Quick. She says young children often talk to it like a human friend while older ones are fascinated with the mechanics of how it works.
When Ard-E busts out a rendition of Frozen's Let it Go, or Psy's Gangnam Style, the appeal is universal, according to Quick.
"He's got all the moves down and everything," she says. "He's really another great tool that's part of the complete set."