The shadow pandemic: Domestic abuse and children during Covid-19


As people were urged to stay at home to be safe, this was quite the opposite case for many women and their children. Whilst the pandemic has played out, the stories of those kept captive with their aggressors has yet to be heard. Elisabeth Carney-Haworth explains how Operation Encompass is trying to help and what resources are available to schools.


  • The response to Covid-19 has confined children with the perpetrators of abuse.
  • Operation Encompass launched their Covid-19 plan to ensure the continued sharing of information relating to domestic abuse in the home.
  • A national teachers’ helpline is available to provide support to those working with children who are vulnerable. 

The ‘shadow pandemic’ is how UN Women (2020) has termed the incredible rise of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 contagion:

‘Since the outbreak of Covid-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.’

As the pandemic’s reach grew and cases across the world rose, countries went into lockdown, people were ordered to stay at home, schools closed, hospitality venues and workplaces were shut, people were made redundant or furloughed and within that set of circumstances it was unsurprising that incidents of domestic abuse would rise. Homes can be a place of terror and fear. 

The toxic trio

‘The impact of the pandemic since March has intensified issues such as domestic violence, parental mental health and alcohol and substance abuse – all factors that put children at greater risk.’

(Children’s commissioner, 2020)

This also reminds us of the toxic trio that so often co-exist and have been identified for many years as of particular risk to children living in homes where they are present. This is one of the reasons that Operation Encompass has been described as ‘the key to the big door’ (Dr Samantha Callan, Parliamentary Advisor to Lord Farmer). More information about how Operation Encompass works can be found in the toolkit Handout –Operation Encompass Factsheet.

Stress has certainly played its part in this ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ and also played its part in the negative impact it has had upon our children. We know that a variety of different stressors can cause perpetrators of domestic abuse to increase that abuse.

Financial pressures, unemployment and home schooling, together with the anxiety about contracting Covid-19 and what the future will bring, have all played their part in increasing both the number and severity of incidents of domestic abuse. For some perpetrators, the lockdowns have given them a sense of incredible power as their victim had no escape and no one to talk to.

The impact that living with domestic abuse has upon children is well researched and those of us working in this field were greatly concerned as soon as the closure of schools was beginning to be considered. That concern has been borne out by the facts we have so far.

What we know

We know that calls to the NSPCC helpline about children living with domestic abuse increased by over 30% in the first lockdown and that meant that they were receiving on average one call per hour. Police Operation Encompass notifications to schools have also risen by a similar figure during the pandemic.

Understanding the implications of a pandemic, a lockdown and school closures on the landscape of domestic abuse, from the very start of lockdown 1.0, Operation Encompass formulated a comprehensive plan to support police, schools and therefore the children living in these toxic and very damaging home situations. This plan was shared with and then supported by the Home Office and is published on its website.

The Covid-19 plan

We asked that:

  • all police forces continue to utilise Operation Encompass, notifying schools of all incidents of domestic abuse where there are children linked to either adult, for those children accessing school and for those at home
  • frontline officers attending such incidents ‘think Operation Encompass’ and carefully consider the needs of the children, reflecting this in the reports which are sent to schools
  • teachers not only respond to the needs of those children who were accessing school but also consider offering places to those children where they received Operation Encompass notifications through the Vulnerable Groups allocations.

There is now, through Operation Encompass, an increased level of understanding in schools about the impact that living with domestic abuse has upon our children, an impact that can last a lifetime if early intervention is not in place.

However, there is also an understanding of the incredibly simple ways schools can support and intervene to help children who are experiencing domestic abuse. Schools can be that safe, secure and nurturing environment in which a child can experience safe, secure and nurturing relationships.

National teachers’ helpline

We realised that our teachers needed support too – they had their own anxieties and worries about the pandemic, they had to quickly change the way they were teaching and had to make their schools ‘Covid safe’. They continue to have to support many vulnerable and fragile children but sadly without many of their normal support mechanisms being in place.

And so we created a unique national teachers’ helpline, which is available five days a week, from 08:00 until 13:00. This helpline has educational and clinical psychologists directly answering the calls and offering free advice, guidance and support for teachers about how best they can support their vulnerable children.

Confidential, anonymous, with no paperwork, no threshold, no waiting list, no hoops to jump through, it is just a way for us to help teachers so that they in turn can help children experiencing domestic abuse. We recognise that we must look after and support those who look after and support our children.

Training for staff

Unable to travel to conduct Operation Encompass briefings, the online key adult training has now been accessed by almost 4,000 school staff with whole-school staff undertaking the training as part of their CPD.

Mindful of the number of weighty guidance documents arriving in the inbox of teachers about how to support children during the first lockdown, we created, together with Dr Emma Corrigan (an educational psychologist), a one-side of A4 aide memoire entitled ‘Recovery and resilience planning’ (included in the toolkit Handout – Operation Encompass recovery and
resilience planning

Using the skills of clinical and educational psychologists from Psychology Associates, we have also provided age-related videos about how best to support children experiencing domestic abuse and are in the process of providing schools with reviews of books which can be used to support the Relationships (and Sex) Education and Health Education statutory curriculum.

These resources support the handbook I have written regarding the teaching of the domestic abuse strand of this curriculum, entitled ‘Operation Encompass: Working to break the cycle of Domestic Abuse’. Our website allows schools to share good practice ideas and processes with each other.

Be aware

  • We must remember that the number of domestic abuse incidents reported to the police are only the tip of the iceberg. We know that there are:
  • on average 35 incidents before someone will report to the police and some never will
  • some children who are experiencing domestic abuse through Operation Encompass and there are children where we suspect there is domestic abuse at home
  • some children where we have no idea about the domestic abuse taking place, but it is just as real.

The culture and ethos of our schools must support each of these three groups of children and Operation Encompass will do all it can to help police forces and schools to do this. Our children deserve no less.

Further information

  • M.L. Evans, M.D., M.P.H., M. Lindauer, J.D., M. E. Farrell, M.D., ‘A Pandemic within a Pandemic – Intimate Partner Violence during Covid-19’, The New England Journal of Medicine, September 2020:
  • ESFA Update academies: 13 January 2021, ESFA, 2021:
  • Operation Encompass online key adult training:
  • Operation Encompass: Working to break the cycle of Domestic Abuse:


Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Elisabeth Carney Haworth

Elisabeth Carney-Haworth OBE is a qualified teacher and has worked across primary and early years education in a number of different roles and within several local authorities. On retirement from her last headship she left her nursery and infant school in Cornwall with an Ofsted rating of ‘Outstanding’. In 2010, together with her husband, she created Operation Encompass, a scheme that supports children experiencing domestic abuse. Elisabeth was honoured in the Queen’s birthday honours list 2019 and appointed an OBE.

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