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3.4 Child Abuse Linked to Spiritual and Religious Beliefs


For additional reading, see Research Report RR750 by Eleanor Stobart: Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of “Possession and Witchcraft”, published in 2006 and the government guidance document ‘Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession’.


Research Report RR750 by Eleanor Stobart: Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of ‘Possession and Witchcraft’.


In May 2014, Research Report RR750 by Eleanor Stobart: Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of ‘Possession and Witchcraft’ was added to Related Guidance.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Child
  3. Concerns
  4. Assessments

1. Introduction

The belief in “possession or “witchcraft “is not uncommon. 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’.

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 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 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 can include family stress and /or a change in the family structure, which can occur in communities with new immigrants.

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. Concerns

Concerns reported in the cases known from research usually involve children aged 2-14, 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. 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 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 or disability or because they are believed to be the product of an adulterous relationship.

All such referrals must be received with a thorough Child and Family Assessment and Strategy Discussion/Meeting (depending on the seriousness of the referral information) which takes into account the the belief system of the child and family. The Strategy Discussion should consider involving the family’s faith group or leader.

4. 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/Meetings.

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.

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.

Any suggestions that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country must be taken seriously and prevented.

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

Although the research has found a number of parents and carers to have some form of mental health problems, 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.

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.