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Abuse Linked to Spiritual and Religious Beliefs

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'.

It is important that professionals feel confident asking difficult questions to ascertain the cultural beliefs within the family and challenging those that are a risk to children - see Section 5, Further Guidance for Professionals.

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 Institutional, Organised or Multiple Abuse Procedure should be implemented.

A number of faith groups have beliefs which affect how they use health services and specifically treatment and immunisations for children. A number of churches and faith groups believe in the power of prayers and faith in God and as a result may refuse medical interventions and treatments including assistance at child births, health checks and immunisations. Where a practitioner becomes aware of a belief held by the parents, where it may impact on the health and development of the child, the practitioner should consult with other professionals to assess the potential risks of significant harm to 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.

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 although it can often occur in church or faith group settings.

Any investigation must include the child being seen and spoken to on his or her own. The child's bedroom or sleeping arrangements must also be inspected.

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.

Concerns about a place of worship may emerge where:

  • A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is a reluctance of some leaders to get to grips with the challenges of implementing sound safeguarding policies or practices;
  • Assumptions exist 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;
  • There is a promotion of mistrust of secular authorities.

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. Similar lessons have been learned from Serious Case Reviews.

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;
  • Often the carer is not the natural parent and the family structure can be complex;
  • Children often appear distressed and withdrawn;
  • 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 and 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.

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 as soon as possible by using the procedures for Common Assessment, Referrals, Assessments and, when appropriate, Strategy Discussions/Meetings.

The signs of abuse linked to faith or belief are like other forms of child abuse. However, children abused for the purpose of removal of demons or possessions often display ‘particular and significant’ signs of abuse either physically, in their presentation or their behaviours:

  • Clothing – It is believed by some that a demon is represented by fire and in order to extinguish the demon the child must be cooled down as much as possible. Children can be found in minimal clothing for this reason;
  • Scars – injuries relating to CALFB often have significant scars such as cuts. These are often done on the torso or back of the child out of sight. One such process of ‘bloodletting’ or Hijamas is done through the head or back of the child and often not very visible;
  • Restraint Markings – Children undergoing this form of abuse often will not be willingly engaging and may be offered numbing creams or lotions. As such they are tied down or held and may have marks around the neck, wrists and ankles;
  • Water / Magical Drinks – drinks are one of the most commonly occurring ways parents choose to ‘help’ their child, however the contents of the drinks, often a small bottle of water, are not checked. As such what parents are thinking is water can be anything. In some cases this has included saltwater mixture, cannabis, GHB and other class A drugs, infused with the water to make the child appear compliant;
  • Ruqyah – this is a prayer read out from the Qur’an. The prayer itself does not refer to demons, witches etc. but the person reading this aloud in front of the child is said to then be able to tell if the child is possessed or not. A child may have explicit knowledge of, or make reference to this prayer

At all levels of assessment where there are concerns about this type of abuse, professionals should consider the wider context of the child's needs; this section highlights particular issues that may be relevant and Section 5, Further Guidance for Professionals provides examples of questions to ask as part of an assessment in these circumstances.

Where referrals to Children's Social Care are made because of concern about Significant Harm, they must be responded to with a thorough 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.

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

However, whilst important to consider the community impact and involve those who may understand more about the cultural practices of the community, staff must bear in mind that there may be concerns about the place of worship - see Section 3, Concerns - and some members of a community or group - including their leaders - may be involved or have reason to conceal practices and mislead professionals, meaning that safeguarding concerns are not addressed. The safety of the child must come first and thorough investigations should be made to assure professionals that practices are safe.

All agencies in the child's network should understand the situation so that they are in a position to support the child appropriately.

Professionals need to find out what life is like for the child and the child should always be central to the assessment.

Families are vulnerable to reverting to ancient belief systems when there are stresses. Stress can make parents interpret certain behaviour, e.g. bedwetting, rebellion, homosexuality, as a 'sin'. The notion of deliverance can be dangerous for a child i.e. the soul matters more than the body and it can be saved. This is why the assessment should address the family's religious beliefs to help understand its influence on their parenting.

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.

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.

Practitioners should consider whether the 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. Practitioners need to establish if there is a faith community and leader which the family and the child adhere to and find out:

  • The details of the faith leader and faith community which the family and child adhere to;
  • The exact address of the premises where worship or meetings take place;
  • Further information about the beliefs 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).

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.

At all levels of assessment, 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;
  • How to involve the family. A belief that the child is possessed may mean the child is 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 are the beliefs of the family and do others in the family or community support these beliefs?
  • Is there a faith community/leader to whom the family relates? If so, his or her details should be obtained, together with the address of the premises where worship or meetings take place. Are they aligned to a larger organisation in the UK or abroad?
  • Is this is an isolated case or are other children from the same community being treated in a similar manner?
  • How can expert advice be accessed about cultures or beliefs that are not their own?
  • What is the family structure and what are the roles of the adults in the household? Confirm the identities and relationships of all members of the household - in exceptional cases, it may be appropriate to consider DNA testing;
  • Who is the child's main carer? Is the child Privately Fostered?
  • Are there reasons for the child to be scapegoated, e.g. the child's behaviour or physical appearance may be different from the other children in the family or community, the child may be disabled or the parents may be labelled as 'possessed'?
  • Does the timing of the abuse link to the arrival of a new adult into the household or the arrival of a child, perhaps, from abroad? If so, what is the child's immigration status and who was the child's carer in the country of origin?
  • What pressures are there in the family? 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;
  • Whether 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).

If a professional is concerned that a child who is being abused or neglected is about to be 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 Greater Manchester Runaway and Missing from Home and Care Protocol (RMFHC) Procedure

Professionals need to know something of the religions they come across. Try to understand the meaning of the incident in the religion as it is understood by the individual.

In many religions there is a notion that the soul is more important than the body - i.e. there is a god, a sphere or a deity that influences the physical world. Ancient belief systems believed in demons and echoes of this still exist in charismatic churches where demons are cast out. Pastors are imbued with of supernatural powers.

Some of these exist in our own culture; ghosts, horoscopes, voodoo, punishment for a previous life witchcraft etc:

  • Kindoki or Ndoki - sorcery;
  • Jinu - parallel universe - e.g. some Muslims believe in a fallen group who want to possess.

Examples of symbols and beliefs are:

  • Evil Eye - in Islam also known as Ayn, Nazan;
  • Dybbuk - from Jewish folklore - someone can be possessed by the wandering dead soul - can cause mental health and personality change;
  • Voodoo - intermingles catholic ritual and African practices- rituals secret language animal sacrifices and talisman;
  • Confucius - ancestors can possess;
  • Sikhism - the demon ego the prime cause of evil;
  • Hindi Dain - witchcraft, evil eye;
  • Christianity - 26 references in St James Bible e.g. 'a sorcerer should not be allowed to live' - Exodus 22:18;
  • Catholics - Baldwin 1991 refers to 600 exorcisms between 1970-80;
  • 'Living Dead' - parents believing that their child is possessed and they want the child delivered - through a Christian ceremony/use of charms;
  • Muti - 'Adam' case in London - boy sacrificed for good of others - body parts put into potions.

These beliefs are often found in fundamental Christian societies and to simply ask what religion someone is will not get at the beliefs system. Don't make assumptions!

Examples of questions to ask are:

  • What does kindoki mean?
  • Tell me about it;
  • How do you feel about it?
  • How do you know about it?
  • How do you feel when your dad says you have kindoki?
  • Tell me who thinks you are a wizard;
  • What would you think if someone didn't believe you?
  • What's the most important thing to give your children?
  • What power have you invested in your faith?
  • What guides your faith?
  • What would happen to someone in Congo who had kindoki?

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.

AFRUCA are also available for advice, training and guidance for staff generally and in particular cases where appropriate. See AFRUCA or e-mail them for more information.

The Manager of the Safeguarding Unit will collate information and keep the relevant Local Safeguarding Children Partnership updated when necessary so that liaison and communication with local faith groups can be monitored and developed.

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

Last Updated: January 8, 2024