17.1 Abuse Linked to Spiritual and Religious Beliefs/Ritual Abuse
Last reviewed in Feb 2023
Next review in Jan 2025
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.
- Introduction(Jump to)
- The Child(Jump to)
- Professional Response(Jump to)
- Reasons for the Abuse(Jump to)
- Concerns(Jump to)
- Assessments(Jump to)
- Children being taken out of the UK(Jump to)
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.
The definition which is commonly accepted across faith-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and the public sector is the term 'possession by evil spirits' or 'witchcraft'.
Any concerns about a child which arise in this context must be taken seriously.
Where the concerns relate to a number of children, consideration should be given to whether the Complex (Organised and Multiple) Abuse Proceedure should be implemented.
Current guidelines for praying for children and engaging with them in a faith context are available in the Staying Safe and Secure Booklet produced by the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) and the Metropolitan Police. Whilst the booklet is specifically for Christian communities, the principles it sets out for safeguarding children are the same across all faith communities and can be adapted accordingly.
Where parents, families and the child themselves believe that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling them, the belief includes the child being able to use the evil force to harm others. This evil is variously known as black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah. Children are called witches or sorcerers.
Parents can be initiated into and / or supported in the belief that their child is possessed by an evil spirit by a privately contacted spiritualist / indigenous healer or by a local community faith leader. The task of exorcism or deliverance is often undertaken by a faith leader, or by the parents or other family members.
The number of known cases of child abuse linked to accusations of "possession" or "witchcraft" is small, but 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.
Such abuse generally occurs when a 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.
A child could be viewed as "different" for a variety of reasons such as: disobedience; independence; bed-wetting; nightmares; illness; or disability. There is often a weak bond of attachment between the carer and the child.
There are various social reasons that make a child more vulnerable to an accusation of "possession" or "witchcraft". These include family stress and/or a change in the family structure.
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. The perpetrator may also deprive the child of sleep and force them to pray all night.
Any siblings or other children in the household may be well cared for with all their needs met by the parents and carers. The other children may have been drawn in by the adults to view the child as "different" and may have been encouraged to participate in the adult activities. Other children are often kept from the ‘accused’ in order to avoid ‘infection’ from evil, causing them to become isolated.
Kambo is a poisonous substance that frogs secrete and is used in some South American countries for healing rituals. Parents may use this substance to “heal” an illness or injury. Kambo is poisonous and should not be used on children.
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:
Professionals should consider:
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.
Reasons for the Abuse
A belief in spirit possession is not confined to particular countries, cultures, religions or communities. Common factors that put a child at risk of harm include:
Concerns reported in the cases known from research usually involve children aged 2 to 14, both boys and girls, and have generally been reported through schools or non-governmental organisations. The referrals usually take place at a point when the situation has escalated and become visible outside the family.
Note: This means that the child may have been subjected to serious harm for a period of time already.
The initial concerns referred have been about:
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 Surrey Children's Services professionals. Professionals working with parents may also become aware that a parent has come to believe that an evil spirit has entered their child.
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 by using the procedures for Action on Receipt of Referrals, Initial and Section 47 Enquiries and, when appropriate, Strategy Discussions/Meetings.
All referrals must be responded by Children's Social Care Services with a thorough Family Assessment (also referred to a Child and Family Assessment or Strengthening Families Assessment) and, depending on the seriousness of the referral information, a Strategy Discussion which takes into account the dimension of the beliefs expressed by the child and family. The assessment 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.
Careful assessment at all stages is needed with close communications, which include key people in the community especially when working with new immigrant communities and with all the various faith groups, are essential.
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.
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.
The child must be seen and spoken to on their own. The child's bedroom or sleeping arrangements must be inspected.
Although the research has found a number of parents and carers to have some form of mental health problem, this must not distract from the child's situation nor be seen as a factor to explain away the potential risks to the child.
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.
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.
The Manager of the Safeguarding Unit will collate information and keep the Sussex Safeguarding Children Partnerships updated when necessary so that liaison and communication with local faith groups can be monitored and developed.
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:
See also - Safeguarding Children who arrive from abroad (including Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation) & Child victims of modern slavery and trafficking