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Berkshire West Safeguarding Children Partnership (in Reading)Procedures Manual

Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief


In April 2020, this chapter was updated throughout and should be re-read.


  1. Definition
  2. Risks
  3. Indicators
  4. Professional Response
  5. Protection and Action to be Taken
  6. Further Information
  7. Legislation
  8. Local Information

1. Definition

This policy aims to address child abuse linked to belief in concepts such as witchcraft and spirit possession, demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray (traditionally seen in some Christian beliefs), the evil eye or djinns (traditionally known in some Islamic faith contexts) and dakini (in the Hindu context); ritual or muti murders where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies; and use of belief in magic or witchcraft to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation. This is not an exhaustive list and there will be other examples where children have been harmed when adults think that their actions have brought bad fortune, such as telephoning a wrong number which is believed by some to allow malevolent spirits to enter the home.

The term 'belief in spirit possession' is the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her. Sometimes the term 'witch' is used and is the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others. There is also a range of other language that is connected to such abuse. This includes black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah, demons, and child sorcerers. In all these cases, genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, congregations, and the children themselves that evil forces are at work. Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them, and abuse often occurs when an attempt is made to 'exorcise', or 'deliver' the child. Exorcism is the attempt to expel evil spirits from a child. (Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession 2007)

The belief in 'possession' or 'witchcraft' is widespread. It is not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions, nor is it confined to new immigrant communities in this country.

Any concerns about a child which arise in this context must be taken seriously.

2. Risks

Common factors that put a child at risk of harm can include:

  • Belief in evil spirits: this is commonly accompanied by a belief that the child could 'infect' others with such 'evil'. The explanation for how a child becomes possessed varies widely, but includes through food that they have been given or through spirits that have flown around them;
  • Scapegoating because of a difference: it may be that the child is being looked after by adults who are not their parents (i.e. privately fostered), and who do not have the same affection for the child as their own children;
  • Rationalising misfortune by attributing it to spiritual forces and when a carer views a child as being 'different' because of disobedience, rebelliousness, over-independence, bedwetting, nightmares, illness or because they have a perceived or physical abnormality or a disability;
  • Disabilities involved in documented cases included learning disabilities, mental ill health, epilepsy, autism, a stammer and deafness;
  • Changes and / or complexity in family structure or dynamics: there is research evidence (see Stobart, Child Abuse linked to Accusations of Spirit Possession [DfES 2006]) that children become more vulnerable to accusations of spirit possession following a change in family structure (e.g. a parent or carer having a new partner or transient or several partners). The family structure also tended to be complex so that exact relationships to the child were not immediately apparent. This may mean the child is living with extended family or in a private fostering arrangement (see Children Living Away from Home Procedure, Private Fostering). In some cases, this may even take on a form of servitude;
  • Change of family circumstances for the worse: a spiritual explanation is sought in order to rationalise misfortune and the child is identified as the source of the problem because they have become possessed by evil spirits. Research evidence is that the family's disillusionment very often had its roots in negative experiences of migration:
    • In the vast majority of identified cases in the UK to date, the families were first or second generation migrants suffering from isolation from extended family, a sense of not belonging or feeling threatened or misunderstood. These families can also have significantly unfulfilled expectations of quality of life in the UK;
  • Parental difficulties: a parent's mental ill health appears to be attributed to a child being possessed in a significant minority of cases. Illnesses typically involved include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia.

3. Indicators

Indicators of abuse can 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 food money or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
  • It may also be directly evident that the child's parent does not show concern for or a close bond with them;
  • A child's attendance at school becoming irregular, or being taken out of school all together without another school place having been organised;
  • 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.

Professionals who are best placed to recognise when a child has been labelled as spirit possessed are those who have regular contact with children - teachers and school nurses, health professionals, community groups and churches, and in some instances LA children's social care professionals. Professionals working with parents may also become aware that a parent has come to believe that an evil spirit has entered their child.

4. Professional Response

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.

Professionals should consider:

  • How to build 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.

Professionals should also consider:

  • 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 sought 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;
  • 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;
  • With careful and appropriate engagement and adequate support, harm can be reduced or in some cases totally removed.

Working with Places of Worship and Faith Organisations

In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to work in partnership with a responsible leader/s from a faith community or to assist a community in terms of safeguarding children through education and training. Such training provides preventative and parenting opportunities.

Before embarking on this course of action, a risk assessment should be conducted to ensure that the child/ren, professionals and others involved in the engagement can do so safely. This strategy is best conducted utilising agencies such as the police and trusted community partners. There are charities and statutory bodies who can access faith communities to assist in this training.

Concerns about a place of worship may emerge where:

  • A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is a reluctance of 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.

Professionals should consult with their agency's designated safeguarding children officer and make a referral to LA children's social care, in line with the Referral and Assessment Procedure.

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.

5. Protection and Action to be Taken

Where concerns arise about abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession a referral to Children's Social Care should be made and the Referrals Procedure followed to ensure children are seen and spoken to on their own. 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 or frightening activities. An inspection of the child's physical environment must include their sleeping and living arrangements.

Assessments should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs and must involve the particular faith group or person performing or advising the family about the child in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. Independent advisors should be considered to act as advisors and mediators where possible.

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.

6. Further Information

Further contacts for advice can be found from the local representatives for some faiths, from organisations such as the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) who provide information about exorcism; the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA); Churches Together in England and the Muslim Parliament, all of whom are consulting about and developing guidance.

For additional reading, see: Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of "Possession and Witchcraft": Research Report RR750 by Eleanor Stobart (2006)

Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (2007) this good practice guidance is archived but still available.

National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2012)

7. Legislation

While there is no specific legislation in respect of 'Faith Related Harmful Practice' the Core Procedures (see Chapter 1) provide details of the legislative framework to protect children.

Local Information

To follow.