SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
This chapter outlines key points in relation to recognising child abuse linked to possession or witchcraft.
In July 2017, this guidance was reviewed and updated as required.
The number of known cases of child abuse linked to accusations of "possession" or "witchcraft" is small, however the impact on the child can be substantial and serious. For the purposes of these procedures, the term "possession" means a belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her, and the term "witch" means a child who is believed to be able to use evil forces to harm others. This can include "demonic possession". In these cases genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, congregations, communities and even children themselves that evil forces are at work.
The belief in "possession" and "witchcraft" is widespread. It is not confined to particular countries, cultures or specific religions, nor is it restricted to new immigrant communities in this country. Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spiritual possession harm children.
The abuse of a child generally occurs when a carer who 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 or requests others to perform exorcism upon the child.A child could be viewed as "different" for a variety of reasons including: disobedience; independence; bedwetting; nightmares; illness, perceived or physical abnormality or disability. The child may also be seen as the reason for the family's or community's misfortune or a source of infecting others with "evil". When families and/or communities hold this belief about a child they may be terrified of him or her, and may feel that everything is under threat - even their lives.
The abuse may be carried out by the child's parents or carers or others in the family network as well as by faith leaders or others in the community such as community elders. The belief that a child is possessed can be supported by faith leaders and the child and, in some cases, the family may be ostracised by the community. Parents / carers may pay for faith leaders / healers to "exorcise" the child. In some cases the parents / carer may believe that a child has passed evil spirits to an unborn child placing the unborn child at potential risk.
The abuse usually occurs in the household where the child lives. It may also occur in a place of worship where alleged "diagnosis" and "exorcism" may take place.
Parents, carers may believe they are doing the right thing for the child i.e. the child is the victim of a supernatural force and they are trying to save the child by driving out the devil.
The forms such abuse can take include:
- Physical abuse in the form of beating, shaking, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi strangulation, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child's genitals or eyes, or placing chilli peppers or other substances in the child's mouth;
- Emotional/psychological abuse in the form of isolation e.g. not allowing a child to eat or share a room with family members or threatening to abandon them, or telling a child they are evil or possessed. The child may also accept the abuse if they are coerced into believing they are possessed. Where the faith includes belief in an afterlife the child may also be told they will be punished for all eternity;
- Neglect in the form of failure to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, regular school attendance, contact with peers, friends or relatives, good hygiene, nourishment, and clothing or keep the child warm;
- Sexual abuse within the family or community, children are abused in this way are more vulnerable to child sexual exploitation.
The use of belief in, witchcraft or possession can also be used to make a child more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation. Also see the procedures for Safeguarding Children Who May be Victims of Modern Slavery (have been Trafficked) Procedure and Children at Risk of Exploitation (CRE) Procedure
2. Identification and Assessment of the Child's Needs
Practitioners who are best placed to recognise when a child has been labelled as a witch or spirit possessed are those who have regular contact with children such as teachers, health professionals, community groups and churches. Practitioners working with parents may also become aware that a parent has come to believe that an evil spirit has entered their child.
Voluntary and community sector organisations working with families and providing advice about a range of issues including child-rearing practices, illness, housing, immigration status etc. may be more likely to be turned to for support than public sector agencies. Parents and carers may be more likely to discuss openly cultural and belief issues without fear of being misunderstood.
Practitioners from different agencies should be alert to any indicators of concern about the child. Indicators of abuse include:
- A child's body showing signs or marks, such as bruises, burns or scars, from physical abuse;
- A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated, frightened or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children;
- A child's personal care deteriorating, for example through a loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or food money or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
- A child reporting that they are or have been accused of being evil, and/or that they are having the devil beaten out of them;
- A child's attendance at school becoming irregular, or being taken out of school all together without another school place having been organised;
- It may also be directly evident that the child's parent does not show concern for or have a close bond with them;
- A parent described their child as having the devil in them. This might be in contrast to how they talk about their other children and, if questioned, they repeat this as their credible belief;
- It is important to consider involving faith based organisations in any multi-agency work as they are well placed to discuss a family's beliefs and put problems they are experiencing in a wider context rather than simply an issue of witchcraft or possession. Practitioners should be mindful however that certain faith groups / leaders may also be instrumental in this form of abuse and it is essential to carry out checks before actively involving any previously unknown faith groups in individual cases.
3. Referral to Children's Social Care
If any practitioner has believes that a child is accused of witchcraft or possession or there are other serious or complex needs or where there are child protection concerns, they should consult with their designated lead for child protection and make a referral to Children's Social Care. Concerns should be discussed with a parent unless it is judged that this action will jeopardise the child's safety.
Where there are concerns that a child is suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm, Children's Social Care will convene a Strategy Discussion / Meeting involving health, police and other relevant agencies. See Child Protection Section 47 Enquiries Procedure, Strategy Discussions / Meetings.
The strategy discussion / meeting should give particular consideration to:
- 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 to which the family and the child adhere;
- 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);
- If there is a designated safeguarding lead within the faith community or larger organisation.
Given the potentially complex nature of Section 47 enquiries it may be appropriate to hold additional strategy discussions to ensure that informed decisions are made. Where a community or organisation is involved in the abuse, consideration should be given to following the Investigating Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse Procedure.
When working with a child and their family particular consideration should be given to:
- Building a relationship of trust with the child, and whether there is another professional who already has a trusting relationship with the child;
- Whether to involve the family. A child who is believed to be possessed may be stigmatised in their own 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 the beliefs of the family are;
- Where to obtain expert advice about cultures or beliefs that are not their own;
- What pressures the family are under. 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; and
- That 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.
Consideration should also be given to the child and family's communication needs, particularly if English is not their first language. If required a professional interpreter should be provided; family or community members should NOT be asked to act as interpreters.
Where a child is form a migrant community, particular care should be taken to assess the risk of that child being taken out of the county to avoid investigation. Legal advice and Police action should be considered.
Where it is believed a professional or someone in a position if trust is involved in the abuse, consideration should also be given to the Allegations Against Staff, Carers and Volunteers Procedure.