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5.1 Abuse Linked to Religious or Spiritual Belief


For additional reading, see Research Report RR750 by Eleanor Stobart: Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of “Possession and Witchcraft”, published in 2006 government guidance document ‘Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession’ published in 2007 by the Department for Education and Skills and the National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief.

Multi-faith Safeguarding Hub


This chapter was updated in August 2015, a link was added to the Multi-faith Safeguarding Hub.


  1. Introduction
  2. Definition
  3. The Child
  4. Research
  5. Assessments

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.

Child abuse is never acceptable wherever it occurs and whatever form it takes. Abuse linked to belief, including belief in witchcraft or possession, is a horrific crime which is condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths.

Key messages from the National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief

  • Child abuse is condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths, and is never acceptable under any circumstances;
  • The National Working Group applauds the work being done in communities to tackle this form of abuse and to stand up to the perpetrators;
  • Everyone working or in contact with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs that a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, Significant Harm;
  • Standard child safeguarding procedures apply in all cases where abuse or Neglect is suspected, including those that may be related to particular belief systems;
  • The number of cases of child abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, possession and witchcraft is believed to be small, but where it occurs it causes much distress and suffering to the child. It is likely that a proportion of this type of abuse remains unreported;
  • Abuse linked to faith or belief may involve a wider context, where the child is treated as a scapegoat in circumstances of family stress, deprivation, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems.

2. Definition

2.1 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’.
2.2 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.
2.3 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’.

3. The Child 

3.1 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.
3.2 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.
3.3 A child could be viewed as “different” by carers for a variety of reasons such as, disobedience; independence; bedwetting; nightmares; illness; or disability.
3.4 A number of factors may 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.
3.5 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.
3.6 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.

4. Research

4.1 Concerns 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.
4.2 The referrals usually took place at a point when the situation had escalated and become ‘visible’ outside the family. This means that the child may have been subjected to serious harm for a period of time.
4.3 All such referrals must be dealt with in accordance with the Making Referrals to Children's Social Care Procedure. Any assessment should take into account the dimension of the beliefs expressed by the child and family. The assessment must include the particular faith group or person advising the family about the child in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. 

5. Assessments

5.1 In view of the nature of the risks, a full medical assessment of the child should take place to establish the overall health of the child, the medical history and the current circumstances.
5.2 Any suggestions that the parent or carers, along with the child will leave the area and/or will take the child out of the country must be taken seriously and addressed on a planned basis.
5.3 The child must be seen and spoken to on his/her own and in his/her own preferred language or means of communication.
5.4 Although the research has found a number of parents and carers to have some form of mental health needs, this must not detract from the child’s situation and should be addressed by the assessment.
5.5 In assessing the risks to the child, the siblings or any other children in the household must also be individually assessed as they may have witnessed or participated in abusive or frightening activities.