Following the publication of a report by Eleanor Stobart, the Government has announced an increase in action to tackle child abuse linked to accusations of ‘possession’ and ‘witchcraft’.

The report concludes that the number of cases of child abuse linked to accusations of ‘possession’ and ‘witchcraft’ is small compared to the total number of children known to be abused each year but that the effects on the family and the victim are ‘devastating’ and that the children and their siblings invariably need long-term foster care.

The research found that schools are both best placed to identify children at risk and make more referrals to social care than any other agency. Schools made referrals based on concerns, usually about neglect but also about children’s disclosures of physical abuse. Unfortunately, despite early recognition by school staff, referrals often fell short of the criteria for social care child protection intervention.

The study also found that some professionals did not take the disclosures of children seriously and thought the children were making them up. This is probably because some of the children’s experiences sounded bizarre and outside the realms of most people’s thinking.

The study encountered many difficulties ranging from the lack of a common terminology to describe this type of abuse to the reluctance of people to speak out. However 74 cases of abuse clearly linked to accusations of possession and witchcraft were identified. To safeguard against double counting, only cases for which there were identifying factors were analysed, bringing the number of cases studied to 38.
The research found:

  • The belief in some form of witchcraft and possession by evil spirits is widespread across the UK.
  • The belief is not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions nor is it confined to recent migrants. The families involved in this study originated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Angola, the Caribbean, South Asia, Ghana, Burundi, Tanzania, Mauritius, Ivory Coast and England.
  • The abuse occurs when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ the child. Parents, relatives or carers who perpetrated the abuse believed that the child had become completely overcome by the ‘evil spirit’. They saw the abuse not as an attack on the child but as an attack on the evil within the child.
  • Places of worship were found to be involved in more than half of the 38 cases, with parents requesting deliverance services, and a religious leader diagnosing a child or fasting for a child. In 17 cases it was not known if a place of worship had been involved or not.

The abuse included:

  • Beating: 24 children reported being beaten, kicked, hit or punched. The arm of one child was deliberately broken.
  • Burning: 10 children were burned – this included scalding and burning with an implement such as an iron.
  • Cutting and stabbing: four children were stabbed – this was to ‘create a way out for the evil’.
  • Semi-strangulation, applying pressure and smothering: three children reported being semi-strangled, ‘to squeeze the life out of the evil’.
  • Fasting and starving: 10 children reported being fasted for various periods of time from 15 hours to three days. A further two children were starved, one losing half of their body weight. One child fasted to ‘cure’ himself. The rationale for fasting/starving was to weaken the ‘evil spirit’.
  • Isolation: keeping the child isolated was fairly common across the cases, to ‘prevent the evil spreading to others’. The child was not allowed to eat with the family, to associate with the family, to share a room or have any physical contact with anyone. In one case the family was reported to only touch the child with a stick. Five children were removed from school in an attempt to isolate them further. The removal from school prevented the children from alerting teachers to their abuse. The level of neglect was reported as severe in 19 cases.

Other abuse included the child being made to sleep in the bath, to have cold baths, being held under water, being tied up and having chilli peppers, salt, or ginger applied to their eyes and genitals.

In 22 cases the child was seen as ‘different’ by parents and relatives and these differences were rationalised as being signs of possession or witchcraft. Differences included: disability, nightmares and ‘transmutation’, bed wetting and challenging behaviour.

All the children studied in this report had been accused of some kind of possession by ‘evil’ forces and a common belief was that the child could ‘infect’ others.

Mental health problems were identified in eleven of the adults who abused the children.

Eleanor Stobart’s report makes difficult reading, in that the abuse reported on is often extreme, but considering that teachers are more likely to make referrals on behalf of these children than any other agency, it is important to read the full report to understand the issues.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations that include the following.

  • Information about this type of abuse should be held centrally to build up a knowledge base and to provide a clearer picture of the scale and the extent of the problem.
  • The DfES, social care, police, schools and immigration should combine in preparing ‘good practice’ guidance for managing such cases.
  • The immigration service should work closely with other agencies to protect children who move in and out of the country.
  • Local authorities should develop close links with the non-governmental agencies that work with these families, funding for resources should be increased and training should be offered to such organisations.
  • All places of worship should have child protection procedures in place.
  • Places of worship should, in conjunction with statutory agencies, develop good practice guides in respect of, ‘praying for children’, ‘deliverance services’ and ‘exorcising children’.