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Abuse Linked to Spiritual, Cultural or Religious Beliefs

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Caption: contents list
Definition and Concerns
Protection and Action to be Taken
Additional Considerations
Further Information
Amendments to this Chapter

Definition and Concerns

Definition of ‘belief in spirit possession’

The term ‘belief in spirit possession’ refers to the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her. Sometimes the term ‘witch’ is used and refers to the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others.

There is a range of other language that is connected to such beliefs which includes black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah, demons, and child sorcerers. In all these cases, 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 can occur 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).

The belief in ‘possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ is widespread. It is not confined to particular countries, cultures or specific religions, nor is it confined to new immigrant communities in this country.

Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children. However, the under-reporting of abuse is likely.

Any concerns about a child which arise in this context must be taken seriously.


A number of faith groups have beliefs, which affect how they use health services and specifically treatment and immunisations for children. A number of churches and faith groups believe in the power of prayers and faith in God and as a result may refuse medical interventions and treatments including assistance at child births, health checks and immunisations. Where a practitioner becomes aware of a belief held by the parents, where it may impact on the health and development of the child, the practitioner should consult with other professionals to assess the potential risks of significant harm to the child.


The number of known cases of child abuse linked to accusations of ‘possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ is unknown but current reported cases are small in number. 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.

There are various reasons that might make a child more vulnerable to an accusation of ‘possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ such as a child being viewed as ‘different’; e.g. disobedient; independent; bed-wetting; nightmares; illness; or disability. There may also be attachment difficulties between the parent / carer and the child.

If a child has been identified as being ‘possessed’ or ‘a witch’ then families / carers may seek the guidance and participation of a Pastor to lead in prayer or exorcism.

The attempt to ‘exorcise’ may involve abusive actions such as:

  • Physical abuse – beating with heavy implements, stamping on stomachs, kicking, punching (to beat out the devil), burning or scalding (burning the devil out), cutting or stabbing (creating a way out for the evil), starving in the form of fasting (weaken the spirit), strangulation (squeeze the life out);
  • Emotional abuse - verbal abuse, curses, knowledge by the child they are hated by all because they are a witch. The self harm that can accompany the belief that they are a witch and responsible for wicked acts can be very damaging;
  • Neglect - the child can be isolated and ostracised from other members of the family and friends `stopping the evil spreading to others’. They are not cared for and denied any form of attention including medical attention. Sometimes children miss education or are not able to concentrate at school because of the abuse at home; and/or
  • Sexual Abuse – the isolation can make victims more vulnerable to additional sexual abuse at the hands of opportunists since no one cares what will happen to them.

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.

Therefore in assessing the risks to a 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.

There are also circumstances where carers or parents believe that a child has passed evil spirits to an unborn child, and practitioners will need to be mindful that a pre-birth assessment may be required, and that children subsequently born into the household may be vulnerable to harm.


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. Some of the indicators of this type of abuse described below are taken from the ‘Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession’ guidance (see Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief - Local Information Sheet), but may also be common features in other kinds of abuse:

  • 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’.

Protection and Action to be Taken

Where there are concerns about abuse linked to witchcraft and spirit possession a referral to Children’s Social Care should be made and the Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure must be followed.

An assessment should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs.

The assessment may include key people in the community especially when working with new immigrant communities and different faith groups.

Practitioners should consider 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 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).

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.

Additional Considerations

Some harmful practices are carried out with the intention of making the child well again using traditional methods. While the motivation for these practices is different to witchcraft, they are nonetheless abusive and require a referral to Children’s Social Care. These practices include:

  • Traditional scarification - traditional decoration/modification of body with cutting/burning etc tribal;
  • Therapeutic scarification - when a child is unwell a traditional healer is consulted and therapeutic scarification may be undertaken (incising the skin with a razor over enlarged spleen for example, hot nails to cause circular burns – anecdotally seen in 70% of Ugandan children for example);
  • Tooth extraction; occasionally cultural practise and often as a therapy for illness.

Often these will have taken place in infancy, but they do leave scars and may be noticed at a later date in an otherwise well child.

There have also been instances of child sacrifice (thought to bring good luck). Child sacrifice is the ritualistic killing of children in order to please or force a god or supernatural beings in order to achieve a desired result. Sometimes just certain body parts required (e.g. genitals).

In addition, an assessment may identify wider concerns about a place of worship such as:
  • 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;
  • There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.

Further Information

Child abuse linked to faith or belief: national action plan - Information for those who work with children on a plan to help prevent child abuse arising from religion or superstition.

Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief - Local Information Sheet

Amendments to this Chapter

In January 2022 the link to Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (2007) was replaced with Child abuse linked to faith or belief: national action plan (2012)