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5.1.12 Child Abuse linked to Spiritual or Religious Beliefs


Child Abuse linked to belief in 'possession' or 'witchcraft' or in other ways related to spiritual or religious belief.


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

See also: Child abuse linked to a faith or belief: national action plan


  1. Introduction
  2. The Child
  3. Indicators
  4. Referrals and Assessments
  5. Reporting cases to the Safeguarding Children Partnership
  6. Further Information

1. Introduction

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'. The term 'possession' means that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her and the term 'witch' means a child who is able to use evil forces to harm others. In either case, these are genuine beliefs held by families and often the children themselves. When families hold this belief about a child they may feel terrified and that everything is under threat.

In some faiths these terms may be used to indicate good spirits as well, 'possession' can be understood to include being taken over by 'the Holy Spirit' for example.

The three common terms for getting rid of the 'evil spirits' are 'praying for children', 'deliverance' and 'exorcism'. There is a range of behaviour associated with 'exorcism' from praying for a child while he or she is not present through to 'beating the devil out of the child'.

Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 empowers local authorities to investigate a referral that a child may have suffered or is at risk of suffering harm. Whilst the Children Act 1989 does not mention the terms witchcraft or spirit possession, it does clarify what constitutes child abuse, which can include harm through witchcraft or spirit possession.

2. 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, capacity to learn, ability to form relationships and self-esteem.

Such abuse generally occurs when a carer accuses the child of being evil and 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; bedwetting; nightmares; illness; or disability. There is often a weak bond of affection 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, both of which are common in communities with new immigrants or migratory families.

The attempt to "exorcise" may involve severe beating, burning, starvation, cutting or stabbing and/or isolation, and usually occurs in the household where the child lives.

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.

3. Indicators

Indicators reported in the cases known from research usually involve children aged between 2 and 14, both boys and girls, and have generally been reported through schools or non-governmental organisations.

Referrals usually take place at a point when the situation has escalated and become 'visible' outside the family. This means that the child may have been subjected to serious harm for a period of time already.

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.

Indicators leading to referrals have included:

  • 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;
  • Often the carer is not the natural parent and the family structure can be complex;
  • Children often appear isolated, sad, distressed and withdrawn;
  • The child is seen as the scapegoat for a change in family circumstances for the worst;
  • 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 a suspicion of adultery by the mother.

This list is not exhaustive and any sign of abuse or neglect may indicate the existence of child abuse linked to possession or witchcraft or in other ways related to religious or spiritual belief.

4. Referrals and Assessments

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 referral, Assessment and when appropriate Strategy Discussion/Meeting.

Careful assessment at all stages is needed and close communications which include key people in the community, especially when working with new immigrant communities, and all the various faith groups are essential.

Whilst there is a need to be culturally sensitive in working with families where there are these concerns, it is important to remain mindful that the safety and protection of the child are paramount.

In view of the nature of the risks a full medical assessment of the child should be considered to establish the overall health of the child, the medical history and the current circumstances.

Any evidence that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country/abandon the child must be taken seriously.

The child must be seen and spoken to on his/her own. Their bedroom or sleeping arrangements must be inspected.

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.

5. Reporting cases to the Safeguarding Children Partnership

The Designated Manager (Children with a Child Protection Plan) will collate information and keep the relevant Safeguarding Children Partnership updated regularly so that liaison and communication with local faith groups can be monitored and developed.

6. Further Information

Good Practice Guidance

National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2012) - information for those who work with children on a plan to help prevent child abuse arising from religion or superstition.

Useful Websites

Child abuse linked to faith or belief – Met Police

What is Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief? - National FGM Centre

Safeguarding in faith communities – NPSCC

What is Witchcraft Abuse? - AFRUCA working in the UK BME communities to protect and safeguard children from abuse and harm

Child protection in religious organisations and settings - Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse