SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
This chapter is intended to help raise awareness of Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Beliefs (CALFB). It aims to support the identification of abuse linked to faith or beliefs, and describes the action that should be taken to safeguard the child (ren) concerned and promote their welfare. This chapter is not about challenging people’s belief, but where beliefs leads to abuse that must not be tolerated.
This chapter was reviewed and extensively updated in June 2021.
- Impact on the Child
- Signs of Abuse
- Acting on Concerns
- Further Help and Advice
Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (CALFB) most often concerns pre-adolescent children, who are abused either emotionally, physically, mentally, financially or sexually because the perpetrator thinks that the child is possessed by something that they believe in. CALFB is not always about religion and will often be based on 'superstitions'.
Research has shown that cases of CALFB usually involve children aged 2 to 14, both boys and girls, and are most often reported through schools or non-statutory organisations. The referrals usually take place at a point when the situation has escalated and become visible outside the family, meaning that the child may have been already been subjected to harm some time.There are several laws in the UK that allow the prosecution of those responsible for abuse linked to faith or belief. One of the biggest challenges is raising awareness and encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward.
For the purposes of this guidance the term 'abuse linked to faith or belief' includes (but is not limited to) belief in the following:
- Spirit Possession;
- The Devil;
- Evil Eye;
- Ritual or Muti Killings / Murders.
In addition, fear of the supernatural is often used to make children compliant at home or where they have been trafficked, forced into domestic slavery or are being sexually or criminally exploited. Children who behave “badly” are told they are possessed and will have to be punished. Children who are believed to be possessed may undergo a variety of 'treatments' or rituals. If these do not work, the child may be abandoned or trafficked for domestic slavery or child sexual exploitation, or in extreme cases, killed. Genuine beliefs can be held by children, families, carers and religious leaders that evil forces have entered the child and are controlling them. Abuse may occur when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ the child.
CALFB can also be linked to other crimes and harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), breast ironing, Honour Based Violence or Forced Marriage.
It is important to remember that the beliefs which are the focus of this guidance are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community, nor are they confined to new communities in this country.
The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children. However, the 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.
Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home. 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 them. 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 may also occur in a place of worship.
A child can be blamed or labelled as possessed by their family, the community or local leaders for a range of different reasons. Common justifications given include:
- Belief in evil spirits: Belief in evil spirits that can 'possess' children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can 'infect' others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child;
- Scapegoating: A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death. An example is Victoria Climbié who was deemed a witch because her parents separated and she was thought to be the cause;
- Bad Behaviour: Sometimes poor or challenging behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child who is seen as disobedient, rebellious or overly independent, or a child who wets the bed, has nightmares or falls ill;
- Physical differences: A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases include children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers and deafness. Left handedness can also be considered a sign of the devil or demon within a child;
- Gifts and uncommon characteristics: If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy;
- Complex family structure/changes in family structure: Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non-biological parent or foster parents is at greater risk. In these situations, they are more likely to have been subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.
Concerns about places 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 and 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;
- There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
4. Impact on the Child
The number of known cases of child abuse linked to accusations of "possession" or "witchcraft" is increasing. As with all forms of abuse, the 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. In addition the accusation of witchcraft dehumanises and criminalises the child thereby opening the door for other forms of abuse including physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.
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 remove the believed possession from the child.
In most cases where there are multiple siblings, there will only be one sibling who is singled out and deemed possessed and blamed for all negative issues and occurrences which then happen within that family unit.
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 abuse.It is also important to recognise that parents/carers or family members may also be at risk of financial abuse, by persons pretending to be 'healers' extorting money on someone's belief or tradition.
5. Signs of Abuse
All agencies should be alert to the indicators above.
In working to identify such child abuse it is important to remember every child is different. Some children may display a combination of indicators of abuse whilst others will attempt to conceal them. In addition to the factors above, there are a range of common features across identified cases. These indicators of abuse, which may also be common features in other kinds of abuse, include:
- A child’s body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse;
- A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated 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 lunch money, or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
- It may be directly evident that the child’s parent or carer does not show concern for or have a close bond with the child;
- A child’s attendance at school becoming irregular or the child being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised, or a deterioration in a child’s performance at school;
- 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’.
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 referral to this prayer.
6. Acting on Concerns
General / non specific concerns about possible harmful practices which are being promoted by a particular organisation or Faith Leader should be referred to Children’s Social Care who will assess; an Early Help intervention may be appropriate for work with the families and the communities concerned to build resilience and reduce their vulnerability to influence by Faith Leaders who promote this type of abuse. Children who may be at risk should be supported by a Team Around the Family (TAF), and schools and other organisations can be used to offer peer support and promote messages about the illegal practices. If the concern relates to a professional (e.g. Faith Leader or a person in a position of trust) consideration should also be given to informing the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO)
Abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession can be hard for professionals to accept and it may be difficult to understand what they dealing with; it can often take several visits to recognise such abuse. In cases of suspected abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession it may be particularly useful to consider the following questions:
- What are the beliefs of the family?
- What is the family structure?
- Are there reasons why the child might be singled out?
- Do I need a professional interpreter?
- What is the preferred language of the child and family?
Concerns that a child or children have suffered or are likely to suffer significant harm should be referred to Children's Social Care. To support the referral the practitioner should, if possible and without causing delay to or impact upon the referral, identify:
- 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;
- 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 can be revealing in terms of statements of faith and organisational structures).
Where possible, the parent / carer should be informed that Childrens Social Care Services are going to be contacted, unless to do so would place the child at further risk of abuse. If there is a suggestion that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country consent should not be sought and this must be conveyed to Childrens Social Care Services as part of the referral.
If the concern relates to a professional (e.g. Faith Leader) consideration should also be given to informing the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO)
Where a child is deemed to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, Children's Social Care Services must respond with a multi agency Strategy Discussion and Single Assessment which considers the dimension of the beliefs expressed by the child and family.
Practitioners should seek advice if dealing with a culture or set of beliefs which are unfamiliar. Understanding religious beliefs and cultural practices helps to gain the trust of the family and community.
The assessment should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs and should involve the faith group or person advising the family about the child in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. Consideration should be given to asking an independent person to provide specialist input where possible.
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. The assessment may include key people in the community especially when working with immigrant communities and different faith groups. In view of the varied 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 by Social Care regarding possible prevention.