17.1 Abuse Linked to Spiritual and Religious Beliefs/Ritual Abuse

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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.

See also:

Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (DfES, 2007)

Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of "Possession and Witchcraft

National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief 2012

Final report of the pan-London Safeguarding Children Culture and Faith Project March 2012



Female Genital Mutilation




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 Child


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.

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 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 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 biological parents labelled as possessed, children with albinism are very often targeted;
  • 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. 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:

  • 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 biological 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. 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.



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:

  • Issues of neglect such as not being fed properly or being 'fasted', not being clothed, washed properly etc. but left to fend for themselves especially compared to the other children in the household;
  • 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;
  • Often the carer is not the natural parent and the family structure can be complex;
  • The child is seen as the scapegoat for a change in family circumstances for the worse;
  • In a group of children it may be the child who is relatively powerless vis-a-vis the parents/carers, maybe a child with no essential role in the family;
  • The child is seen as someone who violates the family norms by being physically different perhaps because of illness, disability or, in some cases, a suspicion by the father of adultery by the mother.
  • 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 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.


See also Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession


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:

  • 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.

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 

This page is correct as printed on Tuesday 16th of July 2024 07:08:22 AM please refer back to this website (http://sussexchildprotection.procedures.org.uk) for updates.