Often the biggest victims of domestic violence are the smallest.

Ending up as collateral damage, children’s lives are blighted into adulthood.

However, a new programme currently rolling out in Northern Ireland is doing something about that.

Operation Encompass, which has already been successfully piloted here, provides a vital school-based intervention for the thousands of children affected by domestic abuse every year.

“The statistics surrounding domestic violence are staggering yet what’s more harrowing are the individual stories behind each one,” says Louise Creelman, a teacher at Bushvalley Primary, Ballymoney.

“Last year the PSNI recorded over 30,000 incidents, the highest ever, with about 90% of children said to be in the same or next room when domestic abuse took place.”

With one in seven under 18s here believed to be living with domestic abuse and now more than ever being acknowledged as equal victims of domestic abuse, not just witnesses, the situation has been described by the UN’s gender equality unit as a ‘shadow pandemic’.

The courts too are feeling the impact. Just last month local District Judge Barney McElholm called for the school curriculum to include education around the subject of domestic abuse.

Marie Brown MBE, director of Foyle Women’s Aid, says: “We would like to see that taken one step further as is the case in some other countries. In parts of the US for instance an abuser faces one set of charges for attacking their partner and another in connection with the child.

“Domestic violence is a huge issue here and therefore a huge issue for children. In Europe, only Romania has worse statistics per head of population than Northern Ireland.”

Indeed 18 women were murdered during lockdown as a result of domestic abuse, while between 2017 and 2021, 34 women here were killed by men.

“For too long children have gone under the radar and it’s something we are actively addressing. Last year alone eight babies were born to mothers in refuges here – so effectively born homeless – and almost 400 children stayed in NI Women’s Aid refuges,” continues Marie.

“Again, last year around 6,000 children and 240 pregnant women received support from our services. The statistics are truly grim.”

Louise Creelman, Past President of teaching body the Ulster Teachers’ Union, sees the fall-out every day.

“Domestic violence is recognised as one of the top 10 adverse childhood experiences, impacting long-term on a child’s mental and physical health, self-esteem, education and relationships, so when a child has been exposed to such a trauma their behaviour often changes,” she says.

“Maybe they’re withdrawn or at the other end of the scale, maybe they’re lashing out yet until now teachers have often had to guess the reason why their pupil’s behaviour is so altered.”

Operation Encompass, however, ends the guess work. Now, if police are called to an incident of domestic abuse where a child is involved, they can ensure safeguarding staff at the child’s school are informed by 9am the following morning.

“Before, it could have been a few weeks before we’d know what was really going on but Operation Encompass allows teachers to provide support right away in the school environment where those young people already feel secure,” continues Louise.

Urging schools across Northern Ireland to adopt the programme, she says children and parents can now be assured that teachers too are doing everything possible to support them.

“Once you’ve established a relationship like this, going forward it can make it easier for parents, children and teachers to talk about similar situations should they arise,” says Louise.

“The result is that Operation Encompass is proving transformative both for children and schools. Its impact is potentially huge for it is every child’s right to be supported, to feel safe and more importantly, to be safe.”

Indeed, the efficacy of the programme is already evident. In its pilot form, which took place in the Southern and South East trust areas, Operation Encompass has already helped thousands of children and young people.

From September 2021 to the end of January 2023, police attended over 1,600 domestic incidents involving over 3,000 children. As a result, over 2,000 referrals were made by police to the relevant teachers at the children’s schools.

PSNI Detective Superintendent Lindsay Fisher says: “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.

“Operation Encompass is another way the PSNI is cementing its commitment to tackling and breaking the cycle of domestic abuse. We remain dedicated to putting the safety and well-being of the children in our communities at the forefront of all we do.”

However, while welcoming the scheme Marie Brown has reservations around its funding.

“I first encountered Operation Encompass in 2007 in the States so it’s taken time for it to roll out here,” she continues.

“While it gives greater understanding of domestic violence to teachers we fear without adequate resources, support for children affected may not be available when it’s required.

“Women’s Aid is already facing deficits. Northern Ireland has yet to see any of the £75m pledged by Westminster in its recent Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan.

“It’s a concern that more children may be coming through Operation Encompass as victims of domestic abuse yet agencies are already struggling to cope.

“It’s not about media soundbites from the powers that be when people are murdered as a result of domestic violence. It’s about creating a policy so these people don’t get murdered in the first place.

“But of course, for that, we need the political will if things are to change.”