In recent years there has been a growing understanding about the importance of helping people get the best possible start in life.
The early and teenage years are a crucial period of change, and more is now understood about the benefits of stability in young lives, and the negative effects of trauma on young minds during these key times for brain development.
As our understanding improves, it becomes clearer how the events that happen to young people lead to physical changes in the brain that have life-long ramifications. Recent medical and governmental research has concluded that love and nurture by caring adults is hard wired into the minds of children.
What’s this got to do with policing and crime in Devon and Cornwall? Well, we’ve known for a long time those who suffer multiple adverse childhood experiences achieve less educationally, earn less, are less healthy and are more likely to come into contact with police. This in turn makes it more likely that the cycle of harm is perpetuated in the following generation.
We are fortunate to have some dedicated and inspiring people working on this issue here in the Westcountry. I’ve talked about Operation Encompass before – the Plymouth-born scheme that connects police dealing with domestic violence incidents to the teachers of affected children.
The brainchild of Elisabeth Carney-Haworth, a teacher, and husband David, a retired police officer, the principle behind the scheme is simplicity itself. The idea was that traumatised children who had witnessed domestic violence would be met at school by a trusted member of staff who had been briefed by police about what had gone on.
It means erratic behaviour can be better understood, responded to and sympathised with. A primary school child who has witnessed sometimes appalling violence in the home may be allowed to cuddle a teddy in lessons or may be given extra time to complete a task.
As with many of these things putting it into practice was quite another matter. There were data protection issues to overcome and Chief Constables to convince, but Operation Encompass is now deployed by most police forces in England and Wales (and the Carney-Haworth’s received OBEs in recognition of their work).
As more evidence emerges about the terrible long-term consequences of trauma on young minds the more this cost-effective and simple approach seems like an appropriate tool in the armoury to give young people the best chance possible.
I have been a supporter of Operation Encompass for several years now, and as the first lockdown led to an increase for calls for help from victims of domestic violence I was delighted to play a part in helping to launch a national Teacher’s Helpline, funded by the Home Office, which gives teachers access to experts in educational psychology.
Last week I, Elisabeth, David, child psychologists and teachers who have made use of the helpline came together to update Home Office Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins on the project. We heard that head teachers dealing with traumatised young pupils had found the advice given invaluable. Often a teacher had taken a course of action and was able to be reassured that they had done the right thing – it was a weight off their mind while working through an already challenging pandemic.
Victoria told the meeting she had long been an advocate of investment in early years and this is an approach that the Government is very much bought into, with a focus on the ‘first 1001 days’ of a child’s life and its disproportionate effect on life chances.
That focus on providing support for young people is also paying dividends in South Devon, where young people at risk of becoming involved in criminality are being helped by a team of experts including parents, police, teachers and psychologists. Initially funded by the Home Office, this project, called Turning Corners, has now been placed on a longer term footing thanks to a violent crime reduction programme which was paid for by our communities through their council tax this year.
Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are among the safest places to live in the UK, by investing appropriately and carefully in our young people we can ensure that they remain that way for generations to come.
If you are a teacher or know one then please make them aware of the Operation Encompass teacher’s helpline. It can be reached on 0204 513 9990 or via operationencompass.org/school-participation. The free advice offered can transform young lives and support our teachers during this challenging time.