Child Abuse linked to faith or belief including Witchcraft (CALFBW)
Child abuse linked to a faith or belief occurs across the country. In such cases a parent or carer has come to view a child as ‘different’ and they may have attributed this difference to the child being possessed. The term ‘belief in spirit possession’ is the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her. Sometimes the term ‘witch’ is used and is the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others.
Genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, congregations, and the children themselves that evil forces are at work. Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them, and abuse often occurs when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’, or ‘deliver’ the child. Exorcism is the attempt to expel evil spirits from a child. (See report: Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (2007))
Definitions of CALFBW
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. It is likely that a proportion of this type of abuse remains unreported.
There are a variety of definitions associated with abuse linked to faith or belief. The Child abuse linked to faith or belief: national action plan – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) includes the following when referring to Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (CALFBW).
Belief in concepts of:
- witchcraft and spirit possession, demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray (traditionally seen in some Christian beliefs)
- the evil eye or djinns (traditionally known in some Islamic faith contexts) and dakini (in the Hindu context)
- ritual or muti murders where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies
- use of belief in magic or witchcraft to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation.
This is not an exhaustive list and there will be other examples where children have been harmed when adults think that their actions have brought bad fortune, such as telephoning a wrong number which is believed by some to allow malevolent spirits to enter the home.
Reasons for the child being identified as ‘different’ may be a disobedient or independent nature, bed wetting, nightmares or illness. Attempts to exorcise the child may include but are not limited to: beating, burning, starvation, cutting or stabbing and or isolation within the household.
Children with a disability may also be viewed as different, and various degrees of disability have previously been interpreted as ‘possession’, from a stammer to epilepsy, autism or a life limiting illness.
Witchcraft is known by many terms; black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah or child sorcerers. All link to a genuine belief held by the family or carers that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others.
While these beliefs are not confined to any particular countries, cultures or religions, one message is clear; child abuse is never acceptable in any community or culture, under any circumstances.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
The National FGM Centre nationalfgmcentre.org.uk is a partnership between Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association (LGA) to achieve a systems change in the provision of services for children and families affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In 2017, the Centre’s remit was extended to include Breast Ironing/Flattening and Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief.
The Centre’s website hosts an interactive knowledge hub which provides a ‘one-stop shop’ for quality assured national and international guidance, information and resources regarding FGM, Breast Flattening and Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief.
It helps to support the continued learning of professionals, the development of good practice, and the understanding of excellence in the delivery of services.
Oral Infant Mutilation (OIM)
Oral Infant Mutilation involves gouging out the teeth of a toddler/child to prevent common childhood illnesses. IOM is a traditional practice performed, usually by village healers but also by priests and midwives as an accepted remedy for illness.
Infants presenting with diarrhoea and/or fevers are subjected to the removal of unerupted baby teeth as the swelling of the gums is mistakenly thought to indicate the presence of ‘tooth worms’. The tooth buds, usually of the eye teeth, are prised out of the gum, without anaesthesia, with unsterile tools such as a bicycle spoke, a hot nail, a penknife etc. Blood loss and shock due to the crude nature of the operation can lead to anaemia.
The unhygienic methods can cause septicaemia, tetanus, transmission of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, and can on occasions be fatal. Long term effects can include eradication and/or malformation of other primary and permanent teeth in the area.
Community and Faith Groups
When CALFB is suspected, 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).
Concerns about a place of worship may emerge where:
- A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is reluctance by 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 and agencies;
- There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
Guidance for Practitioners
Where the concerns about abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession for the welfare and safety of the child or young person are such that a referral to Children’s Social Care should be made and the Referrals Procedure must be followed. The same applies where the concerns relate to beliefs about the use of medical interventions or health treatment.
An assessment should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. Independent advisors should be considered to act as advisors where possible. The assessment may include key people in the community especially when working with new immigrant communities and different faith groups.
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.
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. The child must be seen and spoken to on his or her own. The child’s sleeping and living 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.
NYSCP (safeguardingchildren.co.uk) (Threshold Document)
Universal Referral Form available from
The ‘National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief’ (2012) can be found at www.gov.uk/national-action-plan-to-tackle-child-abuse-linked-to-faith-or-belief
Genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, community. The NSPCC has produced a helpful resource on faith and religion, available from their website at www.nspcc.org.uk/safeguarding-children-young-people-faith-settings
Find out more at www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/culture-faith
The National FGM Centre have launched a new resource to help professionals understand the impact of accusations of witchcraft on a child. In a video Mardoche Yembi offers advice to professionals about how to work with children who have been accused of witchcraft – youtu.be/38bKOfS1z6s
Families believing in the practice of Oral Infant Mutilation could travel to other countries to perform the ritual on their infants.
Visit www.dentaid.org/overseas/oral-mutilation/ for more information and leaflets in various languages.
Other useful websites:
- Coram Legal Centre – website atwww.protectingchildren.org.uk/witchcraft
- Victoria Climbe Foundation – website at vcf-uk.org
- 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