The lack of political will in implementing an early intervention mechanism for children experiencing domestic abuse is preventing children from accessing instant support when they need it.
Alcohol Action Ireland, through its Silent Voices initiative, has been raising awareness about Operation Encompass since 2020. Along with the Ombudsman for Children and other children’s rights advocates, we are calling on the government to explain why this simple and effective early intervention to support vulnerable children, who are victims of domestic abuse, is not being implemented in Ireland when it is being rolled out across schools in Northern Ireland.
Operation Encompass is a police-led, school-based early intervention program which supports children and young people who experience domestic abuse.
Under Operation Encompass, police share information with schools early the following day where there have been instances of domestic abuse involving a child, allowing the school to give immediate support to the child. This is essentially an information sharing protocol between the Gardai and schools.
A recommendation that Operation Encompass be considered for implementation here in the 3rd National Strategy for Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence the issue appears to have fallen off the political agenda. The program was also included in the recommendations of the 2021 report, Drogheda: Creating a Bridge to a Better Future. The latest information regarding progress was cited in the Drogheda Report Implementation Plan update. The report states that an Inter-Departmental Group set up to report on the feasibility of the introduction of a program similar to Operation Encompass had sought legal advice on the matter. “Legal advice has been obtained and requires in-depth consideration before taking the issue further,” the report states.
AAI CEO Sheila Gilheany said:
“Bearing witness to domestic abuse is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can cause problems into adulthood. This risk increases when both substance use and violence coexist in the family. We know that our systems and legal mechanisms are different from those north of the border, but our children and the issues they face are not. This is a humane trauma-informed response to a child in distress. There is no doubt many teachers would do this anyway if they knew what was going on in a child’s home, but the fact is that very often, they don’t due to the hidden nature of domestic abuse.”
“Over the course of the pandemic, we know that incidents of domestic violence escalated. During the same period, government was able to act rapidly to support businesses in innovative ways. Do our children not also deserve swift, innovative approaches to support them?”
Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children said:
“This initiative is a simple and proven one which has been a success across the schools of England and Wales and is now growing in Northern Ireland. It is designed to support children in school when the Gardaí have been at their home. It operates outside the child welfare system and lets the child know they are not alone and that they have a trusted adult they can confide in. The government’s new strategy on domestic abuse recognises children who witness domestic abuse as victims in their own right – action must then be taken immediately to enhance the supports for them. Further delay flies in the face of the commitments made within this 3rd DSGBV Strategy.”
Carol Fawsitt, a former Chair of Alcohol Action Ireland and a Co-Founder of Silent Voices campaign said:
“Every child has the right to grow up in a family where they are taken care of and protected from harm, safe from violence and neglect and where they are treated with dignity and respect. A large and growing body of research indicates that toxic stress during childhood can harm the most basic levels of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, and changes to the brain from toxic stress can affect such things as attention, impulsive behavior, decision-making, learning, emotion, and response to stress. It is imperative, therefore, that the impact of domestic abuse, and indeed alcohol misuse in the home, is addressed by the State. These experiences are recognized internationally as ACES. It is vitally important that children and young people are supported early to navigate the chaos that these experiences bring to their lives, and which are known to negatively impact their futures, relationships, and health. Operation Encompass as an early intervention programee is exactly what was envisaged to help child victims of domestic abuse when the Children First National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children was first published and which preceded the promised Children First legislation in 2015 ”
And as the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald stated at the time of the issue of that Guidance –“No childhood should be shattered by abuse. No young life should be lived in the shadow of fear…It is our duty to do everything in our power as a Government and as a society to prevent such harm.”
Vivian Geiran, Chair of the Irish Association of Social Workers and author of the Drogheda report said:
“It is more than two years since the Drogheda report was published calling for government to explore the potential for implementing an ‘Operation Encompass’ approach as part of the responding to domestic abuse and domestic violence incidents. Given that this is now in operation in the North, following a very successful pilot, it is becoming increasingly unfathomable as to why children down the road in Drogheda, and indeed in other parts of Ireland, cannot avail of this early intervention initiative. The pilot in the North began on a consent basis with schools, families and all involved and so legislation was not required. In the first instance, we could take this approach in Drogheda and get the ball rolling. It will serve to improve interagency cooperation, the lives of children and will in the longer term alleviate stresses on social workers and the child protection system.”
Operation Encompass currently operates in schools in the UK and Northern Ireland. Following a pilot in Northern Ireland, a further 500 schools are implementing the program, and it is envisaged that all remaining areas in Northern Ireland will have the program in operation by summer 2023. This includes schools of all types, nursery, primary and post primary. In Northern Ireland police and educators have all spoken very highly of the benefits of the initiative with Elaine Craig, Assistant Director, Children and Young People’s Services, Education Authority saying:
“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. We are delighted to be working with the PSNI to see further progress of Operation Encompass.”
Silent Voices/Alcohol Action Ireland have been campaigning for the implementation of this program since early 2020. Following a very positive meeting with the then CEO of Tusla, Bernard Gloster, this issue was referred to the Department of Children’s Inter-Departmental Group in late 2020. Since then, progress has been painfully slow. Meanwhile our child victims of domestic abuse are being denied the immediate support they need.
- Alcohol Action Ireland is the independent advocate working to reduce harm from alcohol.
- Silent Voices is an initiative of Alcohol Action Ireland which raises awareness of issues arising from parental problem alcohol use. A key area of concern is domestic violence. Alcohol, while not a cause of domestic violence, is internationally acknowledged as playing a significant role in increasing the level and intensity of domestic violence.
- Silent Voices and Alcohol Action Ireland have been advocating for Operation Encompass since 2020. Operation Encompass is supported by organisations such as the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC, INTO, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and the former Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Conor O’Mahony, and many others, in relation to the need for this early intervention.
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