Revised order of sections and link to the Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief: National Action Plan was added.
Table of Contents
For the purposes of this policy/ procedure the term ‘abuse linked to faith or belief’ includes belief in witchcraft, spirit possession, demons or the devil, the evil eye or djinns, dakini, kindoki, ritual or muti killings and use of fear of the supernatural to make children comply with, for example, being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation. Genuine beliefs can be held by children, families, carers and religious leaders that evil forces have entered the child and are controlling him or her. Abuse may occur when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ the child.
The beliefs which are the focus of this policy/ procedure are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community.
A child may suffer emotional abuse if they are labelled and treated as being possessed with an evil spirit. In addition, significant harm to a child may occur when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ or ‘deliver’ the evil spirit from the child.
Significant harm is defined in Recognition of Abuse and Neglect, Concept of significant harm as a situation where a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, a degree of physical, sexual and / or emotional harm (through abuse or neglect) which is so harmful that there needs to be compulsory intervention by child protection agencies into the life of the child and their family.
The forms the abuse can take include:
- Physical abuse: beating, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child’s genitals or eyes;
- Emotional abuse: in the form of isolation (e.g. not allowing a child to eat or share a room with family members or threatening to abandon them). The child may also be persuaded that they are possessed;
- Neglect: failure to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, school attendance, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or warmth;
- Sexual abuse: within the family or community, children abused in this way may be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Reasons for the Abuse
The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children. However, the children involved can suffer damage to their physical and mental health, their capacity to learn, their ability to form relationships and to their self-esteem.
Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home. Such abuse generally occurs when a parent or carer views a child as being ‘different’, attributes this difference to the child being ‘possessed’ or involved in ‘witchcraft’ and attempts to exorcise him or her. The attempt to ‘exorcise’ may involve severe beating, burning, starvation, cutting or stabbing and isolation, and usually occurs in the household where the child lives although it may also occur in a place of worship.
A range of factors can contribute to the abuse of a child for reasons of faith or belief. Some of the most common ones are listed below:
- Belief in evil spirits: Belief in evil spirits that can ‘possess’ children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can ‘infect’ others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child.
- Scapegoating: A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.
- Bad Behaviour: Sometimes bad or abnormal behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares or falling ill.
- Physical differences: A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases include children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers and deafness.
- Gifts and uncommon characteristics: If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy.
- Complex family structure/changes in family structure: Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non-biological parent or foster parents is more at risk. In these situations, they are more likely to have been subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.
Places of Worship and Faith Organisations
Concerns about places of worship may emerge where:
- A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is reluctance by some leaders to get to grips with the challenges of implementing sound safeguarding policies or practices;
- Assumptions exist that ‘people in our community’ would not abuse children or that a display of repentance for an act of abuse is seen to mean that an adult no longer poses a risk of harm;
- There is a denial or minimisation of the rights of the child or the demonisation of individuals;
- There is a promotion of mistrust of secular authorities;
- There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
Recognising Child Abuse or Neglect Linked to Spirit Possession
In working to identify such child abuse it is important to remember every child is different. Some children may display a combination of indicators of abuse whilst others will attempt to conceal them. In addition to the factors above, there are a range of common features across identified cases. These indicators of abuse, which may also be common features in other kinds of abuse, include:
- a child’s body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse
- a child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children;
- a child’s personal care deteriorating, for example through a loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or lunch money, or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
- it may be directly evident that the child’s parent or carer does not show concern for or have a close bond with the child;
- a child’s attendance at school becoming irregular or the child being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised, or a deterioration in a child’s performance at school;
- a child reporting that they are or have been accused of being ‘evil’, and/or that they are having the ‘devil beaten out of them’.
All agencies should be alert to the indicators above and should be able to identify children at risk of this type of abuse and intervene to prevent it.
The signs of abuse linked to faith or belief are like other forms of child abuse. However, children abused for the purpose of removal of demons or possessions often display ‘particular and significant’ signs of abuse either physically, in their presentation or their behaviours:
- Clothing – It is believed by some that a demon is represented by fire and in order to extinguish the demon the child must be cooled down as much as possible. Children can be found in minimal clothing for this reason;
- Scars – injuries relating to CALFB often have significant scars such as cuts. These are often done on the torso or back of the child out of sight. One such process of ‘bloodletting’ or Hijamas is done through the head or back of the child and often not very visible;
- Restraint Markings – Children undergoing this form of abuse often will not be willingly engaging and may be offered numbing creams or lotions. As such they are tied down or held and may have marks around the neck, wrists and ankles;
- Water / Magical Drinks – drinks are one of the most commonly occurring ways parents choose to ‘help’ their child, however the contents of the drinks, often a small bottle of water, are not checked. As such what parents are thinking is water can be anything. In some cases this has included saltwater mixture, cannabis, GHB and other class A drugs, infused with the water to make the child appear compliant;
- Ruqyah – this is a prayer read out from the Qur’an. The prayer itself does not refer to demons, witches etc. but the person reading this aloud in front of the child is said to then be able to tell if the child is possessed or not. A child may have explicit knowledge of, or make referral to this prayer
Faith based abuse may challenge a professional’s own faith and / or belief, or the professional may have little or no knowledge on the issues that may arise. This makes it difficult for the professional to identify what they might be dealing with and affect their judgement. It will often take a number of contacts with the child or pieces of information to recognise the abuse.
In cases of suspected abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession it may be particularly useful to consider the following questions:
- What are the beliefs of the family?
- What is the family structure?
- Are there reasons why the child might be picked on?
- Do I need a professional interpreter?
- What is the preferred language of the child and family?
Practitioners should seek advice if dealing with a culture or set of beliefs that they do not understand, or which are unfamiliar to you. Practitioners need to have an understanding of religious beliefs and cultural practices in order to help gain the trust of the family or community.
When working with a child and their family particular consideration should be given to:
- Building a relationship of trust with the child, and whether there is another professional who already has a trusting relationship with the child;
- Whether to involve the family. A belief that the child is possessed may mean they are stigmatised in their family. If the child has been labelled as possessed, professionals should find out how this affects the child’s relationship with others in the extended family and community;
- What the beliefs of the family are;
- Where to obtain expert advice about cultures or beliefs that are not their own;
- What pressures the family are under. These cases of abuse will sometimes relate to blaming the child for something that has gone wrong in the family. Professionals should consider whether there is anything that can or should be done to address relevant pressures on the family;
- That the abuser may have a deeply held belief that they are delivering the child of evil spirits and that they are not harming the child but actually helping them. Holding such a belief is no defence or mitigation should a child be abused.
Consideration should also be given to the child and family’s communication needs, particularly if English is not their first language. If required a professional interpreter should be provided; family or community members should NOT be asked to act as interpreters.
Professionals should ensure that all the agencies in the child’s network understand the situation so that they are in a position to support the child appropriately. The child can themselves come to hold the belief that they are possessed and this can significantly complicate their rehabilitation. To dismiss the belief may be harmful to the child involved. With careful and appropriate engagement and adequate support, harm can be reduced or in some cases totally removed.
Any practitioner who comes in to contact with children should be able to recognise evidence that a child is being abused or neglected, and know what to do to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child. This may be the crucial intervention that protects the child from further abuse or neglect. In any situation in which there are concerns for the safety and welfare of a child the Referrals Procedure must be followed.
Where there are concerns that a child is suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm, Children’s Social Care will convene a Strategy Discussion / Meeting involving health, police and other relevant agencies. See Action to be taken where a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.
The strategy discussion / meeting should give particular consideration to:
- Whether these beliefs are supported by others in the family or in the community, and whether this is an isolated case or if other children from the same community are being treated in a similar manner;
- Whether there is a faith community and leader which the family and the child adhere to:
- As a minimum, the full details of the faith leader and faith community to which the family and child adhere to should be obtained;
- The exact address of the premises where worship or meetings take place should be obtained;
- Further information should be obtained about the belief of the adherents and whether they are aligned to a larger organisation in the UK or abroad (websites are particularly revealing in terms of statements of faith and organisational structures);
- The family structure:
- The roles of the adults in the household should be clarified (e.g. who the child’s main carer is, whether the child is being privately fostered);
- Whether the abuse relates to the arrival of a new adult into the household or the arrival of the child, perhaps from abroad;
- If the child has recently arrived, what their care structure in their country of origin was. What the child’s immigration status is;
- The identities and relationships of all members of the household. These should be confirmed with documentation; it may be appropriate to consider DNA testing;
- Whether there are reasons for the child to be scapegoated (e.g. the child’s behaviour or physical appearance may be different from other children in the family or community, the child may be disabled or their parents labelled as possessed);
Whether an interpreter is required. If working with a very small community, the professional should assure themselves that the interpreter and the family are not part of the same social network.
An assessment should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs and should involve the particular faith group or person advising the family about the child in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. Consideration should be given to asking an independent person to act as an adviser and mediator.
The assessment may include key people in the community especially when working with new immigrant communities and different faith groups. In view of the nature of the risks, a full health assessment of the child should take place to establish the overall health of the child, the medical history and current circumstances.
The child must be seen and spoken to on his or her own. The child’s sleeping and living arrangements must be inspected.
In assessing the risks to the child, the siblings or any other children in the household must also be considered as they may have witnessed or been forced to participate in abusive activities.
Children being taken out of the UK
If a professional is concerned that a child who is being abused or neglected is being taken out of the country, it is relevant to consider:
- Why the child is being taken out of the UK;
- Whether the care arrangements for the child in the UK allow the local authority to discharge its safeguarding duties;
- What the child’s immigration status is. Professionals should also consider whether the child recently arrived in the UK, and how they arrived;
- What the proposed arrangements are for the child in their country of destination, and whether it is possible to check these arrangements;
- Whether the arrangements appear likely to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare;
- That taking a child outside of the UK for exorcism or deliverance type procedures is likely to cause significant harm.
Any suggestions that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country must be taken seriously and legal advice sought regarding possible prevention.
There are a number of laws in the UK that allow the prosecution of those responsible for abuse linked to faith or belief. One of the biggest challenges is raising awareness and encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward.
Further information and useful links
Further contacts for advice can be found from the local representatives for some faiths.
- An Exploration of Knowledge About Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2016)
- National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2012)
- Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (2007) this good practice guidance is archived but still available.
- Eleanor Stobart report 2006: Child Abuse Linked To Accusations of Possession And Witchcraft (2006)
- Unicef study report: Children Accused of Witchcraft
- AFRUCA: Africans Unite Against Child Abuse
- Thirty One Eight A Christian charity helping protect vulnerable people from abuse.
- VCF: The Victoria Climbié Foundation An organisation campaigning to improve child protection policies and practices.
- Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB) A UK member of the International Social Service (ISS), supporting children separated from their family in another country.
- National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) A national children’s charity, preventing abuse and helping those affected to recover.