A Bessbrook vice-principal has hailed a pilot programme which sees police sharing details with schools of instances of domestic abuse carried out in front of a child.
And Michael Doran, who is also the designated teacher for safeguarding at St Joseph’s Primary, says Operation Encompass sees the school become “another strong link in a chain that will not tolerate domestic violence in any shape or form”.
He was speaking as it was revealed today (Thursday) that Operation Encompass – which is in place at schools across the Southern and South Eastern Trust areas – is to be rolled out across other parts of Northern Ireland.
Over 3,000 children were exposed to domestic abuse in the Southern and South Western Trust areas, from the start of the 2021 school year until the end of January 2023.
The programme sees police sharing information with schools where there have been instances of domestic abuse in the presence of a child.
This will allow officers to pass on relevant information to the school the child attends so the right support can be put in place.
Operation Encompass is a partnership between the PSNI, the Safeguarding Board of Northern Ireland, the Education Authority and schools. It is aimed at supporting children who witness domestic violence or abuse in the home.
If the police attend a domestic abuse call where children are present, they will contact the child’s school before 9am the next morning to share this information with their safeguarding team so the correct support can be put in place.
Across the pilot areas within the Southern and South Eastern Trust areas, police have attended 1,659 domestic incidents with 3,111 children exposed to domestic abuse from the start of the 2021 school year, until the end of January 2023.
This has resulted in 2,137 referrals being made by police to the designated teacher at the relevant school.
Police say incidents of domestic violence can be incredibly traumatising for children and Operation Encompass helps get them access to emotional support in a school environment where they have trusted adults around them. The information shared by police is treated in strict confidence.
Across the Northern and Western Trust areas, a further 500 schools are joining the programme, bringing the total number of schools on board to 960. Areas joining the rollout include; Fermanagh, Enniskillen, Omagh, Cookstown, Strabane, Derry, Limavady, Coleraine, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballycastle, Antrim, Larne and Newtownabbey.
The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) will also be joining the programme.
The final rollout to remaining areas in Northern Ireland will take place by summer 2023.
This includes schools of all types – Nursery, Primary, Post Primary, Special, EOTAS, Irish Medium and Independent Christian.
Detective Superintendent Lindsay Fisher, from the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch, said: “A child who is experiencing domestic abuse at home will go to school the next day potentially sleep deprived and frightened.
“They will naturally withdraw themselves and require additional support and understanding from someone who knows what they have had to witness the night before.
“This is why it is so incredibly important that our Education colleagues are made aware in quick time when a child has suffered or witnessed domestic abuse and thousands of young people have benefited from this scheme already.
“Operation Encompass is another way the Police Service of Northern Ireland is cementing our commitment to tackling and breaking the cycle of domestic abuse. I am delighted that we are now in a position to roll this very important initiative out to even more schools.
“We remain dedicated in putting the safety and well-being of the children in our communities at the forefront of all we do.”
St Joseph’s Primary School, Bessbrook became part of the scheme in February 2022.
Since then a number of children have received help and support.
Vice-Principal Michael Doran said: “We are delighted to be part of Operation Encompass so that we can be better informed and proactive in our care and support for children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence.
“It means we can have support mechanisms in place before the child even enters the school, and allows us to better monitor their emotional state and needs based on actual facts and information rather than, in previous years, where teachers and staff were working off their ‘gut feelings’ and intuition.
“By becoming part of Operation Encompass, we became another strong link in a chain that will not tolerate domestic violence in any shape or form.”
Michael Kelly, Interim Head of Service from Education Authority’s Child Protection Support Service, said: “Domestic abuse can have a profound impact on children and young people. Operation Encompass allows key school staff to provide them with appropriate support in a timely manner. This is in line with the EA’s values and our commitment to trauma informed practice.
“We are delighted to be working with the PSNI to see further progress of Operation Encompass in the Northern and Western regions.
“I want to pay tribute to our school staff, who even in these challenging financial times have welcomed this development and we are grateful for their leadership in promoting this and for supporting every child and young person as a result of Operation Encompass.”
Women’s Aid Federation NI CEO, Sarah Mason, added: “Women’s Aid NI welcomes the further roll out of Operation Encompass across Northern Ireland.
“We know from our extensive experience of supporting children that often the smallest victims of domestic abuse are the biggest…they see it, hear it, feel it and fear it.
“In the aftermath of a domestic abuse incident, children can be extremely upset, frightened, tired and confused and teachers need to know and understand the reasons for this.
“Children often tell us that school is their safe place so it is vital that teachers are aware of and understand the situation at home and the child’s support needs, which must be paramount.
“Op Encompass is a simple yet hugely important initiative that puts the child at the centre, and ensures teachers are informed, enabling them to fulfil their role as a social guardian.”