In spring 2007 the DfES published new guidance on the management of cases where it is suspected that abuse is linked to the belief that the child has been possessed by evil spirits or witchcraft

The guidance starts with a number of key principles:

  • Child abuse is never acceptable in any community, in any culture, in any religion, under any circumstances.
  • Everyone working or in contact with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs.
  • Standard child safeguarding procedures apply and must always be followed in all cases.
  • Child abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession sometimes stems from a child being used as a scapegoat for family problems and deprivation.

The guidance suggests that children who are different in some way, for instance where they have a physical disability,  medical condition, learning difficulties, or are perceived to be ‘spiritually’ different, may be at more risk of this kind of abuse. The guidance makes it clear that the number of children subjected to such abuse is small but that where it occurs the impact on the child is severe, causing significant harm to the child’s development and in some cases the abuse has been fatal. The guidance calls on professionals to make links, where they exist, between individual cases of this kind of abuse and individual faith leaders as well as wider belief, faith or community practices, a daunting task, as the guidance acknowledges. However, professionals are advised that they should always seek advice through their locally agreed procedures and not act on their own. The term ‘belief in spirit possession’ is defined in the guidance as the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her. Terms used for this evil force include: black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah, demons and child sorcerers, and a child may be described as a ‘witch’, meaning that they utilise evil forces to harm others. Families and the children accused of possession may feel extremely threatened by the alleged evil spirit and abuse may occur as part of an attempt to ‘exorcise’, or ‘deliver’ the child. In 2006 the DfES reviewed child protection cases and found 38 cases involving 47 children where this type of abuse had been properly documented. Forty-eight children compared to the 26,400 children on child protection registers at 31 March 2006, is a very small group but the child abuse committed against them was described as particularly disturbing and serious, including:

  • physical abuse: in the form of beating, shaking, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child’s genitals or eyes, or placing chilli peppers or other substances in the child’s mouth
  • emotional/psychological abuse: in the form of isolation, for example, not allowing a child to eat or share a room with family members or threatening to abandon them, or telling a child they are evil or possessed. The child may also accept the abuse if they are coerced into believing they are possessed
  • neglect: in the form of failure to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, regular school attendance, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or keep the child warm.
  • sexual abuse: children abused in this way may be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, perhaps because they feel powerless and worthless and feel they will not be believed if they tell someone.

The guidance identifies a number of common factors that put children at risk:

  • Belief in evil spirits and possession. In all the cases that the DfES research identified the child had had an accusation of ‘evil’ made against them and this often included a belief that the child could infect others.
  • Social factors including: changes in the family structure or dynamics, private fostering, disillusionment with life or negative experience of migration (the majority of these cases involved parents or carers who are first or second generation migrants to the UK) and a parent’s mental health.

If you have a concern that a child may be being abused in this way follow your locally agreed procedures. If your concern is that the child may be removed from the UK to be further abused contact the police as well as social care immediately. This guidance recognises that while it is often a family member or a carer that carries out the abuse, a faith leader and some community groups may also support the family’s distorted belief that the child is possessed.

Concerns about a place of worship may emerge where a lack of priority is given to the protection of children and religious leaders do not implement sound safeguarding policies or practices. The community may make the assumption and assertion 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.